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We often perceive that our body language is a reflection of how we feel about ourselves and our surroundings, though few of us consider our own body language directly: instead others make judgements about us, as we do them, based upon it; this is our natural response. However, academics at Columbia and Harvard believe that our choice of pose, and tweaks we may make to it, can have a huge effect on us; resulting in “advantaged and adaptive psychological, physiological, and behavioural changes”. I.e., body language reflects our feelings and enforces them.
The study which is the subject of this piece is not new. In fact, the short article was released four years ago, entitled ‘Power Posing: Brief Nonverbal Displays Affect Neuroendocrine Levels and Risk Tolerance’ (available via the Library OneSearch). However, the relevance of the research is still very prevalent. So much so, that one of the Professors, Harvard social psychologist Amy Cuddy, gave a TED Talk on the report’s findings in 2012, which currently has over four million views on YouTube alone. The case put forward here is the idea that our body language effects our behaviour and emotions, not just the other way around. If you sit in a “high power pose”, meaning that you spread out, take up space and have an open posture, you will feel more confident; more ready to take on challenges. By contrast, if you sit in a “low power pose”, making yourself smaller, your performance will suffer.
The research is centred on how our “nonverbal displays” affect us based upon two hormones; testosterone and cortisol. Put simply, higher testosterone increases dominant behaviours and effects how we rise to a challenge. Cortisol by contrast, is lower in powerful people than powerless people. Higher cortisol is related to high stress. The report states: “the power holder’s typical neuroendocrine profile of high testosterone coupled with low cortisol – a profile linked to such outcomes as disease resistance (Sapolsky, 2005) and leadership abilities (Mehta & Josephs, 2010) – appears to be optimally adaptive.” The science behind the hypothesis put forward by these professors is that high power poses cause higher testosterone and lower cortisol, resulting in feelings of being more powerful and more tolerant.
The experiments used to test the hypothesis suggests it is true. In one, a random selection of 42 people were placed in either high power or low power poses for one minute, filled out a questionnaire on how powerful they felt and then took part in a gambling game. Saliva samples were taken to measure hormone levels. Those placed in high power poses were found to have higher testosterone and low cortisol; during the game they focussed more on reward. Those in low power poses were found to have lower testosterone and higher cortisol; during the game they focused more on risk. In the second experiment, participants were subject to a stress test and the results concluded the same. This research is the first of its kind and is astonishing in that it places our body language as a tool which we may use to improve our performance.
Cuddy has recalled times when people have told her how Power Posing has changed their lives, which brings all the science to life. She speaks of world class violinists and school kids who have been effected by the research, for the better. Cuddy discusses her experience of her own students, who may be very smart and know all the answers, but previously did not answer questions in a class. Whether you believe in this research or not, few can deny that it is a compelling idea that standing in a star shape for a few minutes pre-interview will help calm the nerves and give you that necessary extra self-assurance, as Amy Caddy suggests.