Power posing or postural feedback is a technique that suggests how you hold your body influences how you feel and how you behave. Over the last decade, naysayers labeled power posing a pseudoscience, and the intense debate over the validity of power posing research culminated in death threats and bullying. Now, more research has confirmed the effects are real, and a new generation of researchers is honing in on exactly how our posture and stance impacts our thoughts and behavior.
Power posing became popular after Amy Cuddy told a TED audience about her research which indicated that when people assume an open or expansive stance (make themselves appear taller and wider), they subsequently feel more powerful. In her studies, Cuddy, along with colleagues, had participants assume either an expansive posture or a contractive posture (leaning inward, legs crossed) for a couple of minutes prior to completing tasks. The researchers found that after adopting an expansive pose, study participants felt more powerful, took more risk in a gambling task and performed better in a mock interview than those who had adopted contracted poses. Other researchers have continued to study this phenomenon, and one study published in March, found children as young as fourth grade who assumed an expansive pose reported better student-teacher relationships and reported feeling more powerful than those who adopted a contracted pose.
But some researchers were not able to replicate a few of Cuddy’s effects, and some scholars began to question if power posing was a real thing. Changes in hormones, for example, that were found to be associated with power posing in Cuddy’s original study were not found in a subsequent study. Social psychologist and Northwestern University professor Eli Finkel describes it this way, “Many people were skeptical that power posing had the sorts of positive effects that Cuddy said they did. And, indeed, replication efforts haven’t shown the same level of support for the hormonal effects that the initial study showed. But what is weird is that the results—preregistered, rigorous replications from scholars who were deeply skeptical of the effect—kept showing that the core effect is robust. Postural expansiveness versus contractiveness does indeed make people feel more powerful. The effect isn’t huge, of course, but it’s clearly there.”
Mia Skytte O’Toole, a professor at Aarhus University in Denmark agrees that there’s a connection between our posture and how we feel. She and her colleagues published an analysis of all the studies (there were 73) that had been conducted in this area and completed what’s called a meta-analysis, or a statistical summary of these studies. Overall, when comparing open poses to closed, the researchers found robust effects for changes in both behavior and mood. “To me, it is non-controversial to say that the way we approach the world with our physical bodies shapes the way we think and feel,” O’Toole concludes.
What’s most fascinating about O’Toole’s study is that the strongest effects may be related to the contractive postures. That is, it may be that hunching and contracting may have the largest impact on feelings and behavior. The researchers examined all the studies where a neutral pose was studied in addition to contractive poses. Although only a small number of studies examined neutral postures, O’Toole found there were significant benefits to adopting a neutral pose rather than a closed, contracted posture.
O’Toole believes it’s possible that we associate contractive poses with dangerous situations. She says, “A neutral pose may tell you you’re safe, and there is no danger here. You’re turning off the side of you that’s focused on threats and loss.”
No corresponding benefit was found for getting big, when the researchers examined expansive versus neutral poses (only six studies have been completed that compare expansive poses to neutral ones, possibly too few for a fair comparison). O’Toole is clear that this doesn’t mean there is no advantage to expansive poses and believes there are several possible explanations for the lack of results.
O’Toole believes that the context of the situation plays a critical role in whether it’s advantageous to contract or expand your body posture. For example, if people are too stressed or not invested in the tasks at hand, she feels that the effects of expansive poses may be diminished. There may be times when a contractive pose provides the most benefits, and she believes there are other situations where adopting what she calls an open pose instead of a dominant pose might be most beneficial. In an open pose, you’re still expansive and taking up physical space, but you’re not positioning yourself in a fighting posture. She describes the open pose, as “I’m here, bring it on, but in a nice welcoming way, ‘I’m ready to receive’ more than ‘I’m ready to fight.’”
O’Toole plans to find out more about the situations when expansive, neutral and contractive poses are most beneficial, particularly for depressed and anxious patients. She has received a grant from the Velux Foundation for $800,000 to fund her future research in this area.
An update on how our posture impacts our thoughts and behavior wouldn’t be complete without a discussion of the bullying that Amy Cuddy endured after her TED talk on the topic. Eli Finkel explains that Cuddy and colleagues’ research in this area emerged at the beginning of an upheaval in the field of psychology when some feared that major findings in the field were not replicable. In general, Finkel points out, these critics made some good points about standard practices that needed to be changed in the field. However, arguments grew more contentious and accusations of bad motives and shoddy methods began to emerge.
“Still, even in this contentious period, the debate surrounding power posing was bonkers. The issue, of course, is that Amy Cuddy gave a truly spectacular TED talk on the topic—and, of perhaps greater relevance, became famous. Those developments happened before the tensions really emerged in the field, but her fame and influence put a major target on her back,” says Finkel.
In addition to her fame and influence, Cuddy’s critics seemed obsessed with profits from her book and her fees for speaking engagements. Dollar amounts frequently emerged in conversations where academics discussed the research, and recently, one of her most vocal critics said her speaking engagement fees made him feel “ill.” One Ivy League professor tweeted, “You can listen to her speak about her irreplicable results for $25-$40,000.” In reality, her book and speaking topics have little to do with the power posing studies.
Many of the negative comments were personal in nature and aimed at Cuddy directly. “They were comparing me to Harvey Weinstein,” Cuddy says, recalling a post to the PsychMAP Facebook group which the site owners were eventually persuaded to remove. As if that’s not bad enough, Cuddy also received death threats via direct messages on social media. “I became an untouchable in my field,” she adds, describing how colleagues were shunned for merely friending her on Facebook.
A blog post by one Ivy League professor illustrates the personal nature of the debate. The post was devoted to analyzing a comment left by Cuddy to a friend on Facebook. “I was just responding in a discussion of my friend's post about what was going on with the research. I didn’t even think it was a public page,” Cuddy says of her comments. The professor’s blog post garnered a whopping 176 comments, including comments from other academics and dissected important issues like the pros and cons of Cuddy mentioning she was done being, “quiet and polite” regarding the power posing criticism.
Although Cuddy says Harvard wanted her to stay, she left her full-time position, because she no longer felt safe doing her work (she remains a faculty member at Harvard Business School in Executive Education). “My dean wanted me to stay, but I later told him, I couldn’t stay, because I couldn’t endure this abuse. It was relentless,” says Cuddy. Her experiences inspired her new book (still a work in progress) entitled, Bullies, Bystanders and Bravehearts aimed at helping others who find themselves facing similar experiences.
Cuddy is not the first to experience bullying in academia, and there’s even a term for it. Academic mobbing has been described as “a non-violent, sophisticated, ‘ganging up’ behaviour adopted by academicians to ‘wear and tear’ a colleague down emotionally through unjustified accusation, humiliation, general harassment and emotional abuse. These are directed at the target under a veil of lies and justifications so that they are ‘hidden’ to others and difficult to prove.” The researcher, Siew Beng Khoo claims, “Bullies use mobbing activities to hide their own weaknesses and incompetence.”
Despite the personal attacks, some of the criticism of power posing has been constructive and has led to the development of more robust studies and increased the scientific understanding of this phenomenon. Cuddy appreciates the constructive criticism that furthers the science, even though she’s no longer actively engaged in postural feedback research. “To me, the most important thing is getting the science right and presenting the science accurately,” she says. “I feel like there’s an obsession with quashing anything that comes out that’s supportive [of postural feedback], and that’s bad for science.”
There’s plenty of evidence of this quashing. For example, O’Toole’s positive study results were labeled “the nail in the coffin” for power posing research on Twitter, and the largest section on the Power Posing Wikipedia page is dedicated to “Replication Failure.” Some of the bias on the Wikipedia page was initiated by anonymous or unregistered users who created accounts just to work on the “Power Posing” and “Amy Cuddy” pages, and the users attempted to add the term “discredited” to the initial Wikipedia definition of power posing over a dozen times.
Progress is still being made in this area, despite the pushback, but there are still many unanswered questions and more work needs to be done. O’Toole is grateful for the grant she received and the opportunity to further the research on postural feedback and obtain more answers to the most compelling questions. “I’m really grateful to the Velux Foundation, that they dared to do this, and gave me the money and saw the potential in the questions we’re asking,” she said. She understands that the road ahead may have some bumps, and she adds, “I’m sure we will get some heat, and we are prepared for that.” She will not just be examining if postural feedback works or doesn’t work, but also wants to know, how, for whom and when it works. She says, “Of course there is an effect there, but we have to understand it better.”