We all know that our body language can give off signals to those around us about how we're truly feeling.
Crossed arms or "closed body language" suggest that we're feeling defensive and aren't really receptive to the person we're "listening" to. Fidgeting suggests that we're bored. And poor eye contact or blushing can suggest that we're lying (surely not!?).
One major development in the field of body language that hit the headlines is the "power pose." This is a theory put forward in 2011 by U.S. social psychologists Amy Cuddy, Dana Carney and Andy Yap. They proposed that "... when you pretend to be powerful, you are more likely to actually feel powerful."
An idea, among many others, taken forward by Cuddy in her inspirational, best-selling 2015 book, "Presence: Bringing Your Boldest Self to Your Biggest Challenges."
What the original trio suggested was that the simple act of holding a powerful pose can have powerful impact. For instance, sitting with your legs up on the desk and arms held expansively behind your head can raise your testosterone and lower your cortisol levels. Testosterone is the hormone that affects dominance; cortisol is the stress hormone.
The study assessed participants' hormone levels before and after they held high-power (open limbs, expansive positions) and low-power (closed limbs, contracted positions) poses. It found that their initial hypothesis was true. We can indeed "fake it till we make it."
Just as a male gorilla beats his chest to assert his hierarchical dominance, humans can use open and expansive body language to enhance their confidence, increase feelings of power, and lower their stress levels.
These findings build on several psychological studies suggesting that some aspects of body language can change your emotional state. For instance, someone nodding "yes" to you can make you easier to persuade, and, when you smile, you can feel more positive.
So, how can powerful poses help us in the workplace? Or, indeed, in our everyday lives?
Well, the study proposes that, simply by striking a power pose, you can better prepare yourself for difficult or stressful situations. Perhaps you've got a presentation that you're nervous about making, or a job interview coming up.
Holding a power pose, even in private, can help you to approach these events in a confident and less-stressed way. In contrast, a weak pose that uses closed body language (hunched shoulders, folded arms, etc) can make you perform poorly.
The study also suggests that persistently practicing these power poses can, over time, improve our health and wellbeing. And it can be particularly useful for people who feel consistently powerless and overlooked, or who have low self-confidence.
Cuddy and her team point to several other studies that have shown how chronically high cortisol levels can lead to stress-related health issues; for instance, impaired immune functioning, hypertension, or memory loss. In contrast, low cortisol and high testosterone levels (both of which improve when we strike a power pose) can make us more resistant to disease and more able to lead effectively!
However, since it was published, a number of academics have questioned Cuddy, Carney and Yapp's findings. In particular, a study led by statistician Eva Ranehill, published in 2015, aimed to replicate the 2011 experiment using a larger group of participants. It revealed that there was little evidence to suggest that power poses could help to improve feelings of power.
But that's not to suggest that it can't be a real phenomenon. Just that it will likely work better for some people than it does for others.
Ultimately, Cuddy's findings have proved enormously popular since they were first published. In fact, her TED Talk on the subject continues to be one of the most popular of all time, and has more than 64 million views!
In her book "Presence," Cuddy says that, fundamentally, developing presence is about believing in yourself. You'll then focus less on how others see you, and more on how you see yourself. When you're true to yourself, you're less dependent on others' approval.
Power poses are part of that picture. When we feel powerful, we often raise our hands or make ourselves look bigger, like the All Blacks during a haka. This conveys that we feel comfortable with ourselves. And that we believe we deserve to take up space.
As someone who openly admits to struggling with nerves, and who persistently shies away from public speaking of any kind, I'm definitely open to giving power posing a whirl the next time such a stressful situation crops up.
It can't hurt, and could very likely help. And if it doesn't, there's at least a laugh to be had over my cheesy superwoman impression!
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Do you think we can change the way we feel and act just by changing our body language? The next time you're faced with a stressful situation, will you strike a power pose? Let us know your thoughts in the comments section below!
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