Words by Andrea Lütken
Photography by Fred Jonny
In 2012, a Ted talk by Harvard social psychologist Amy Cuddy titled “Your body language shapes who you are” catapulted her career to new heights. People all over the world have accepted and implemented her scientific findings, which are often described as a ‘life hack for success’, into their own lives. Power posing is the idea that standing in a posture of confidence for as little as two minutes can have a sufficient affect on the testosterone and cortisol levels in the brain for you to feel, and therefore become, powerful.
In the timeless masterpiece (and consequently always relevant) movie Mean Girls, the main character, Cady, enrols in a high school in the United States having been home schooled her whole life by her explorer parents in Africa. Overwhelmed by the social interaction between her teenage peers, we see them as Cady imagines them, turning into the wild animals she used to observe around the water hole in the African savannah. Snarling and roaring at each other, running around on all fours, marking their territories etc.
As everyone over the age of 18 knows, comparing high school to a building filled with wild animals does seem a fair comparison. High school is, for most of us, worrying about which people you should choose to share a table with for lunch to establish your place in the social hierarchy, spending hours researching what shade of blue your new jeans need be in order to communicate how effortlessly cool you are, how to answer the teacher’s question with the perfect combination of wit, irony and including the actual answer to impress your classmates. High school is navigating through a complicated spider’s web of what Amy Cuddy calls ‘power dynamics’. Power dynamics consist of both verbal and non-verbal expressions of power dominance.
In the animal kingdom, where they’re without words, they open up and make themselves big to show power. The opposite goes for you (you being an animal for the purpose of this explanation) when you feel powerless or scared – you close up and make yourself small. Humans (you can now be you again) do the same.
“Our minds change our bodies, is it also true that our bodies change our minds?”
Cuddy’s answer to this question is why her TED-talk is the second most viewed talk of all time with 39,5 million views, and counting.
The conclusion of her simple experiment, and answer to the question, is that you “can significantly change the way your life unfolds” by standing in a position of power for just two minutes. So to answer in simpler terms — yes.
Saliva samples were taken from all test subjects before the experiment began. The subjects then either stood in what were classed as either low or high power poses for two minutes, after which time they were asked if they’d like to gamble. They then either did or did not gamble. Afterwards saliva samples were taken once again from all of the subjects.
Risk tolerance (the willingness to take risks)
86% for the high power posers
60% for the low power posers
Testosterone (the macho confidence hormone)
Increased by 20% for the high power posers
Decreased by 10% for the low power posers
Cortisol (the stress hormone)
25% decrease for the high power posers
15% increase in the low power poses
Many people in the science community were fascinated. Some thought it was too good to be true. There were several replications of the study, with varying results. Many considered the power pose to be a scientific overreach.
Meanwhile the number of people in bathrooms channeling their inner gorillas steadily increased. The public turned a blind eye and a deaf ear to the whispers by scientists of the beloved power pose not being a real thing. That is, until Dana Carney, co-author of the original study, stated in September 2016 that she didn’t think the power-posing effect was real, and rather that the original study had “fatal methodological shortcomings” as a result of statistical shortcuts taken by the research team.
Those who had previously ignored the critics now started paying attention. Cuddy’s response to her former colleague, and all of other critiques came in the form of an open letter and begins with her pointing out that Carney was herself in charge of the data. Ouch. She also points out that science is always evolving, moved forward by improved data and discussion, and that she takes that new data into account during her talks now.
“Like all scientists, I understand that my field evolves as new evidence replicates some effects and not others. While I am confident about the key power posing effect on feelings of power and the overall evidential value of the literature, I am agnostic about the effects of expansive posture on hormones. The jury is still out.”
Agnostic. Which could be taken to mean unsure, and leaves us wondering: does it work or not? Is it really possible, as Cuddy encourages in her talk, for a person to fake it ’til they not only make it, but until they become it?
Though no longer certain her claim still stands (that adopting and holding certain open postures leads to physiological, hormonal changes in the body), Cuddy insists the existence and robustness of power posing effects still stands, psychologically.
Either way, to stay on the safe side, caution is advised when utilising the power of power posing. Lest we forget that when high school heroine Cady faked being a mean girl, she faked it until she became the meanest of them all.
Story first published in Volume Eleven.