The world of psychology and body language exploded into the mainstream landscape in 2010 with Professor Amy Cuddy’s TED talk on ‘Power Poses’. Since then, many people have adopted this technique. Recently, the science behind it has come under criticism. So, many people have been left asking, ‘To Power Pose or not to Power Pose, that is the question’.
Let’s try an experiment. If you are reading this slumped in your chair, try sitting up straighter. Do you now feel more alert? If you are standing up, do you feel more confident if you have your head up and your shoulders out? Anecodtally, most people say that the improved body language makes them feel better.
But what about the research? To answer this, we must go back to the original study (PDF). Using a small sample (only 42 participants), researchers found that spending a few minutes adopting a powerful stance before an event has the following impact:
- They feel more confident
- They are more likely to take risks
- It increases their testosterone
- It reduces their cortisol levels (this is commonly referred to as the ‘stress hormone’
Psychologists have been arguing for years that not only does your psychology effect your physiology (i.e. if I feel sad I am more likely to frown), but that the opposite is also true; that your physiology effects your psychology (i.e. if I clench my jaw I feel a bit more stressed). This reasoning dates back to the work of 19th Century Psychologist William James (often referred to as the ‘Father of American Psychology).
What was new about the research on Power Poses, is that this 2010 paper was the first to link body language to changes in hormone level. Amy Cuddy’s TED presentation really brought this into the mainstream consciousness.
Not Everyone Agrees
One of Cuddy’s co-authors on her original research has gone on record as saying that the design method they employed wasn’t the most robust and that the reported effects weren't as big as they have been made out to be. So much so, that she does not advocate the use of power posing. You can read her exact thoughts on the matter here (PDF).
In attempt to clarify this, other psychologists tried to replicated her findings from the original study. Using a much larger sample size (over 200 participants), they concluded that power posing does indeed make people feel more confident, but that there were no significant differences to risk taking or changes to testosterone or cortisol levels. A separate review of the existing power posing research also confirmed these findings that power posing does indeed make people feel more powerful, though it didn't impact on their decision making too much.
POWER POSING FIGHTS BACK
Amy Cuddy recently replied to the criticism of her study. She stated that the main impact of body language (that it makes people feel more confident) has been replicated many times across many settings. She even noted how the bigger study which failed to replicate most of her initial findings did actually confirm that this effect on your confidence is very real (the main disagreement being on why this was the case and what impact this enhanced confidence has on your decision making).
She also includes an interesting quote, which states that ‘the scientist has an experimental mind, not a litigious one’. People should question old research. Science never really seeks to prove anything, only to disprove things. We never really know anything for 100% certainty, but try to use research to help us narrow down our predicitions. You can not help but get the feeling from reading Amy Cuddy’s response, that she has been personally hurt by the extent of the criticism that has come her way.
OUR FINAL THOUGHTS ON POWER POSING
We think having good body language will make people think you feel more confident (which will probably help reduce some of your own nerves). Why is this the case? It seems like the jury is still out on this. Will it dramatically change you life? Almost certainly not.
It won't turn an introvert into an extrovert, or someone who is risk-averse into a risk-taker. What it probably will do is make you feel a little bit more alert and a bit more confident, which may help you make a better first impression when you have to perform under pressure.
*The impact on facial expression has on your mood has also been questioned recently, with one famous study, where participants who were forced into smiling by holding a pen in their mouth rated cartoons as funnier, recently failed to be replicated. An interesting long read on this replication issue is discussed brilliantly here. However, just because a forced smile does not make someone rate a cartoon as funnier, there seems to be a lot of research that does suggest that smiling can make someone feel a bit happier. You can read some of these studies here and here.