Nope, it’s not the back aches or foot pain. If you can’t concentrate while working at a standing desk, it’s probably because your primal brain is subconsciously making eye-friends with all your coworkers.
We have evolved to do this because being attuned to others’ emotions is essential for creating and sustaining social bonds. As social creatures, our happiness and development depends on our relationships—and not being eaten by a mountain lion depends on being attuned to angry, potentially threatening foes. Humans have therefore evolved to absorb the emotions displayed by those around us through facial expressions, body language, and vocal tones, and then mimic those feeling in our own expressions. “What people often don’t realize is that our emotions are communicated interpersonally, and they’re contagious,” says Mary Lamia, a psychologist and author of the upcoming book, What Motivates Getting Things Done: Procrastination, Emotions, and Success.
This process—called the “inter-personal affect transmission”—happens instantaneously and unconsciously whenever we view faces or hear voices. It’s the reason you tear up when watching a sad movie, smile when a baby beams a gummy grin at you, or get anxious when your colleague is rambling about all the assignments they’re behind on.
Although this effect allows us to empathize and connect with those around us, being hyper-responsive to the world’s whims isn’t an ideal operating system when it comes to productivity. As we mature, we therefore develop an empathic wall that gives us the ability to monitor our susceptibility to another person’s affective display. This allows us to turn a blind eye and remain unemotional when it doesn’t serve us well. Our emphatic wall is situationally dependent, though, which means we’re less likely to be affected by strangers’ emotions in public, and more likely to unconsciously mirror emotions in environments we feel safe in, like our homes and workplaces.
When standing in an office—especially one where others are sitting—your range of vision is far wider; you can see a lot more faces from a higher vantage point than you do sitting down. The more people you can see both directly and peripherally, the more faces you are unconsciously trying to interpret. And the more you process this information, the more likely you are to take those emotions on yourself. “You’re like a lightning rod,” Lamia says. “You don’t just notice your colleagues’ presence—you start to literally imitate their presence.”
When, out of the corner of your eye, you see a colleague wince, narrow their eyes, yawn, or raise their brows, you unconsciously interpret their confusion, anxiety, exhaustion, or irritation in a matter of milliseconds. You then mimic that affect in your own face, and, if only for a moment, feel the very annoyance or confusion you perceive in others. The same goes for when you notice positive affect—a laugh, hum, or upbeat conversation—and find yourself slightly smiling or feeling more positive. This is preferable to grumpy osmosis, but still not great for distraction-free mode.
This sponge-like effect occurs even when your colleagues are seemingly projecting “straight” or “blank” body language. This is because whenever we feel an emotion, we experience a micro-expression—a brief, involuntary facial expression that occurs as fast as in one-fifteenth to one-twentieth of a second. Paul Eckman, a psychologist and expert on microexpressions, has shown that the seven major micro-expressions—disgust, anger, fear, sadness, happiness, surprise, and contempt—are culturally universal, and even demonstrated in congenitally blind individuals who have never seen another human face.
Because we want to understand those around us, we’re highly attuned to picking up on these glimpses of emotion, even if only on a subconscious level. Therefore, when standing and able to see many people at once, we’re constantly trying to deduce meaning from our coworkers’ countless micro-expressions—even from seemingly blank, 3-pm-slump stares.
This state of existence heightens our arousal. Physiologically speaking, arousal refers to the state of being physically and mentally alert, awake, and attentive; physical sensations of arousal often include increased heart rate, blood pressure, and the presence of adrenaline. This state of arousal can distract attention away from our work at hand, which makes complex assignments increasingly difficult.
“People perform optimally at a moderate level of arousal,” says Derek Chapman, associate professor of psychology at the University of Calagry. “Too much and we can’t focus, too little and we’re bored.” Standing up increases autonomic arousal, which inhibits performance on tasks that require significant working memory (a.k.a., most things you do at work). If you’re only one of a few people using a standing desk at your office, this influence is exacerbated by the spotlight effect. This phenomenon makes us believe other people are paying more attention to us than they actually are.
“There’s a reason cubicle partitions exist,” Lamia says, “as they literally embody an emotive wall, blocking you from your colleagues’ emotional displays and subsequent distraction.” But partitions, which are now widely scorned in modern open-layout offices, are a double-edged sword, as too little arousal results in boredom. That’s not conducive to getting meaningful work done, either.
So, what to do? While we cannot control our evolutionary, involuntary response to the emotions of those around us, being aware of this effect can help us choose the contexts in which we do work. For example, if you’re dealing with a task that doesn’t demand much concentration, standing among your colleagues will provide a helpful arousal boost. But if you’re tackling a complex assignment, it may be best to find a work area that faces a wall or window, distant from your colleagues’ emotive projections.
But if you still find yourself unfocused at your standing desk, take solace: The more susceptible you are to other people’s emotive displays, the more empathy you likely feel for your colleagues. Without such empathy, we might be less distracted, but we’d certainly be more lonely.