How ‘Power Posing’ Can Change Your Body and Mind

business woman with hands on her hipsThere’s a good reason why more than 16 million people have viewed Harvard professor Amy J. Cuddy’s TED Talk: “Your Body Language Shapes Who You Are.” In it, Dr. Cuddy describes findings that seem to be both commonsensical and revolutionary all at once; even two minutes of adopting a powerful stance can change both one’s physiology and behavior. Over time, acting as if one is confident and powerful can positively impact self-concept, or the way we view ourselves.

Other research has shown that people who feel powerful tend to have a greater sense of agency, better cognitive function, adopt more expansive body language, and are more willing to take action than those who feel less powerful. People who feel disempowered tend to adopt more contractive or protective postures. During her talk, Cuddy shows photographs of the iconic Wonder Woman stance (i.e., hands on hips, feet apart, head erect, and gaze confident) as one example of a power pose. She contrasts this with images of protective postures (i.e., limbs in toward body or crossed, shoulders forward, chin tucked). In effect, feeling powerful leads one to take up more space, both literally and psychologically. Furthermore, powerful people tend to have higher baseline levels of testosterone, lower baseline levels of cortisol (a stress hormone), and reduced cortisol reactivity to stressors.

In their study, Dr. Cuddy and colleagues hypothesized that adopting high-power poses would lead to increased testosterone, decreased cortisol, and higher risk tolerance. They randomized 42 men and women into two groups, where they would be posed in either high or low power positions by an experimenter for a total of two minutes. Power poses were characterized by expansiveness (taking up more space) and openness (limbs open versus closed or crossed; the specific poses used can be viewed in their article).

Cortisol and testosterone levels were measured before and after the poses. Participants’ willingness to engage in risk taking was measured via a gambling task, and subjective feelings of power were measured by self-report.

The team found that their hypotheses were confirmed: Just two minutes of high-power posing was associated with a statistically significant increase in testosterone and decrease in cortisol. High-power posers also reported feeling more powerful and “in charge” than low-power posers. Furthermore, they were more likely to view a game of risk as an opportunity to win rather than to lose. In contrast, those who had adopted low-power poses for two minutes had significant decreases in testosterone, increases in cortisol, reported feeling less powerful, and were more likely to avoid risk, viewing it as an opportunity to lose.

Why is this important?

Aside from the subject distress associated with feeling powerless, persistently elevated stress hormone levels are linked to increased incidence of stress-related illnesses, including immune issues and hypertension. In addition, if we feel chronically at a disadvantage, we are likely to act in accordance with this belief, avoiding situations because we view ourselves as less likely to navigate them successfully.

In her talk, Dr. Cuddy equated personal power with feeling more confident in one’s ability to “win,” and thus, greater willingness to take chances that may result in some reward. She also noted the difference between male and female business students’ body language and levels of class participation (men tend to participate more, and adopt power poses more frequently; women as a group participate less often, despite the fact their grades depend on participation). Cuddy attributed this difference at least in part to the fact women are socialized differently from men; my interpretation of this is that, in general, women are encouraged to be nice, and discouraged from taking up too much space, physically or otherwise.

It is intriguing to wonder what the long-term benefits could be of consciously adopting more powerful, self-confident body language, particularly if one feels stressed, discouraged, or down. It certainly seems worth trying. If you do this, please let me know what you think.

Be well!

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  • alexa

    April 2nd, 2014 at 9:51 AM

    Power posing? Hmmm,,, now that’s a new term on me, but I like it! And I totally get it! You adopt a pose that shows others what you wnat them to think about you and the chances are pretty great that this is EXACTLY what they will ultimately think about you. If we all adopted this kind of stance though, the world might become one big standoff so this might only work for the ones who are trying to get a new job, or really trying to force a point. But it is a good thought for someone who is always perceived as being mild and meek but who wants to show a different side, or who actually wants to tap into a totally different part of themselves.

  • Hilly

    April 2nd, 2014 at 11:03 AM

    Can this be right? I have spent so much time feeling like I have to downplay my strengths to kind of go with the flow, and here is some one telling me no play them up, be strong, show them who’s in charge. I think that I like this a little bit better than that feeling of having to hide the real me.

  • blaine

    April 3rd, 2014 at 3:26 AM

    So if the old adage Fake it til you make it proves to be true then this is a winner.

  • Traci Stein

    April 3rd, 2014 at 10:08 AM

    Hi All and thank you for your comments. Alexa, the poses actually help *you* to feel more powerful. I am sure other people do sense when we feel better about ourselves.

    HIlly, I agree – playing down your strengths doesn’t really help anyone. You can be confident without being overbearing (something that a lot of “nice” people worry about).

    Blaine, that is true – it’s actually more of “fake it until you become it” – which is what Dr. Cuddy says in her video. This is an approach often used very skillfully in hypnosis – identifying the quality you would like to possess more of (in this case, confidence), imagining what that would feel like, and in effect, creating the felt experience of confidence.

    Be well!

  • joely

    April 3rd, 2014 at 4:24 PM

    I think all of this is great UNLESS you take advantage of it. Just don’t take it too far and it will work to benefit you.

  • Allison

    April 4th, 2014 at 3:40 AM

    You have to truly believe in something and present that image to others and before long you will notice that they are thinking the very same thing about you and seeing you in the exact same way. It can be a challenge at first because it might be a complete 180 from how you have always let others see you, and quite honestly, how you have always thought about yourself. But once you start, I think that you will notice that this can be a really good change for you. That does not mean that you have to dive into every single project like this, but I think that you will be surprised how you start envisioning yourself anf your strengths just a little bit differently when you start thinking with a little more power!

  • christie M

    April 5th, 2014 at 12:28 PM

    I honestly find it amazing that this actually tricks the body into beliving this too! We are not talking that you just think this in your head, your body levels of testosterone and other hormones believe that you are more powerful too so they reflect that as well. That’s pretty unbelievable.

  • Trinity

    April 9th, 2014 at 8:03 AM

    There is sometimes a fine line that you have to draw as a woman though to make sure that you are not coming off as something a little more than just strong, youn know the b word. People are quick to make assumptions and judgements abotu strong women unfortunately and that can be difficult on you especially in the work setting. So make sure that you do this in a way that screams confident and secure but not, you know, off putting.

  • Traci Stein

    April 9th, 2014 at 3:10 PM

    It seems several people are concerned that feeling more empowered might lead them to seem pushy or out of line. I think there is a difference between the two, however. If you try power posing for two minutes daily over the course of the next week or so, please do share how this experience was for you.

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