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The Dark Side of Power Posing: Cape or Kryptonite?

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.


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Image: iStock/tommasolizzul

In 1942, the mild mannered Clark Kent excused himself from his friend Lois Lane to take an important call. Clark slipped into a phone booth (remember those?), and moments later Superman emerged. Have you ever wished that you had ability to step into a phone booth or bathroom for a minute to shed your insecurities in favor of superhuman confidence? This would certainly be a handy trick before a job interview, public speaking engagement, or even a first date. New research suggests that power poses just might do the trick.

Throughout the animal kingdom expansive non-verbal expressions are used to communicate dominance and power to others. If you can imagine a silver back gorilla—or a corporate executive—pounding his (or her) chest, you get the idea. A recent series of papers by Dana Carney, Amy Cuddy and Andy Yap argue that these poses are not only an expression of power, but may also induce feelings of power. This work is described in an eloquent and emotionally gripping TED talk by Dr. Cuddy. If you have not seen this talk already, you should. It has been viewed by over 10 million people in less than a year (and liked on Facebook by almost 300,000 more), which might make it the most popular psychology presentation in history. The talk centers on a paper in which Dr. Cuddy and her colleagues randomly assigned 42 participants to complete high or low power poses for two minutes each. Before and after the poses, participants in both conditions provided small samples of their saliva, which were used to assess their testosterone and cortisol levels. After power posing, participants were more likely to take risks on a gambling task and reported feeling more powerful. More strikingly, high power poses increased testosterone and decreased cortisol—a neuroendocrine profile that has been previously linked to leadership ability. Despite this seemingly trivial manipulation, the effects of power posing were quite large by psychology standards. Or, as Dr. Cuddy concluded in her TED Talk, these “tiny tweaks” led to “big changes.” At a glance, it would seem that we are all a quick trip to the phone booth away from strapping on a red cape and leaping over tall buildings.

If you are feeling skeptical about drawing large conclusions from a small sample, a new paper was published by Drs. Cuddy, Carney, Yap and their colleagues last week suggesting that your concerns might be misplaced. Some of the new studies used different analysis strategies than the original paper (e.g., the results in the first paper adjusted for gender and other covariates), but they did find that the effects of power posing were replicable, if troubling. People who assume high-power poses were more likely to steal money, cheat on a test and commit traffic violations in a driving simulation. In one study, they even took to the streets of New York City and found that automobiles with more expansive driver’s seats were more likely to be illegally parked. It would seem that power posing might be as likely to turn you into a villain like Lex Luther as it is to turn you into Superman.

If you are already lacking self-confidence, you might reason that the ends justify the means. Acting like a heartless jerk for a few minutes may be a small cost to pay for your dream job or a promotion, right? Although it is tempting to conclude that power posing might be a way to trick our nervous system into feeling powerful, research by Pablo Briñol, Richard Petty and Ben Wagner has shown that that this strategy might actually backfire among the people who need power the most. In a paper published prior to the power pose work described above, they examined the possibility that power posing might make people more confident in their own thoughts—even if those thoughts were negative! As predicted, Dr. Briñol and his colleagues found that power posing increased self-confidence, but only among participants who already had positive self-thoughts. In contrast, power posing had exactly the opposite effect on people who had negative self-thoughts. In fact, it actually decreased their self-confidence as potential professionals. In other words, power posing backfired among half the participants. This earlier research provides an important lesson for power posers. Although students from elite universities, like Columbia and Berkeley, who composed most of the samples from the first few papers, may benefit from power posing, many people may actually be worse off. For the Clark Kents of the world, such as the nervous job applicant or first generation college students, power posing may be more like Kryptonite than a red cape.

Other recent research confirms that power poses may not exert a direct effect on feelings of power. In two studies, Joe Cesario and Melissa McDonald found that power poses only increased power when they were made in a context that indicated dominance. Whereas people who held a power pose while they imagined standing at an executive desk overlooking a worksite engaged in powerful behavior, those who held a power pose while they imagined being frisked by the police actually engaged in less powerful behavior. Likewise, when people held a low power pose and imagined being a senior in high school watching the freshmen scramble to find their classes, they engaged in powerful behavior. In other words, the situational meaning of the pose seems to matter more than the pose itself. This is all to say that you should think twice before heading to the nearest phone booth to strike a power pose since Superman, Lex Luther or even Clark Kent might emerge.

Briñol, P., Petty, R. E., Wagner, B. (2009). Body postures effects on self-evaluation: A self-validation approach. European Journal of Social Psychology, 39, 1053-1064.

Carney, D. R., Cuddy, A. J. C., & Yap, A. J.  (2010). Power posing: Brief nonverbal displays affect neuroendocrine levels and risk tolerance. Psychological Science, 21, 1363–1368.

Cesario, J., & McDonald, M. M. (2013). Bodies in context: Power poses as a computation of action possibility. Social Cognition, 31, 260-274.

Yap, A. J., Wazlawek, A. S., Lucas, B. J., Cuddy, A. J. C., & Carney, D. R. (2013). The ergonomics of dishonesty: The effect of incidental posture on stealing, cheating, and traffic violations.” Psychological Science.

About the Author: Jay Van Bavel is an Assistant Professor of Psychology at New York University. His research uses behavioral, psychophysiological, and neuroimaging methods to study how subtle changes to the environment can alter our group identities and moral values and therefore our judgments and decisions. Dr. Van Bavel has published over 30 academic papers in some of the top journals in psychology and neuroscience (e.g., Psychological Science, Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience) and won numerous research awards, including the Early Career Award for Distinguished Contributions in Social Neuroscience. Dr. Van Bavel completed his PhD in Psychology at the University of Toronto and a postdoctoral fellowship at The Ohio State University. Follow on Twitter @jayvanbavel.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.






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