There have been a lot of social behavior studies that have focused on how our body language affects those around us – what non-verbal messages we send, and how those messages make others feel.
However, less work has been done to analyze if, and how, our body language affects us.
Social psychologist, Amy Cuddy, set out to investigate this question, and she and her team found that our body language physically changes our brains’ chemical composition, which can affect how we behave.
She discusses her work and its findings here in her 2014 TED talk:
If you haven’t seen it yet, you should watch it! But for now, we’ll summarize it for you here:
She begins by pointing out that the universal motion for excitement, elation, and/or dominance is to open up your body widely and throw your hands in the air – think of a sprinter who crosses the finish line and wins the race.
This is seen across the animal kingdom, and even those who are congenitally blind will make these motions despite that they have never witnessed anyone else do this. So this form of body language is innate and intuitive.
Given that people tend to stand taller and spread their arms wider when they are feeling victorious and elated, she questioned if the opposite was true when people are feeling defeated. Not surprisingly, she was correct. When people feel defeated, discouraged, intimidated, or inferior they tend to make themselves smaller with their arms and legs crossed more tightly and their shoulders hunched forward.
She then looked at hormone levels in the brain to see if a corresponding shift in chemical composition was associated with these different feelings and mental states.
By examining testosterone and cortisol levels – the dominance and stress hormones, respectively – she was able to show that, indeed, those who exhibited the open, arms up, dominant, “on top of the world” behaviors temporarily had higher levels of testosterone and lower levels of cortisol. In contrast, those who exhibited the small, closed-off, defeated behaviors had lower testosterone and higher cortisol levels, suggesting that these individuals were very stressed; the opposite of the former cohort of people.
So it seemed that body language and certain behaviors were, as predicted, associated with different stress levels and mental states.
Then came the most interesting question… She wondered if our feelings and hormones dictate our body language or if it was the other way around: does our body language dictate our mental state?
She recruited a number of participants (blind to the study) and measured their hormone levels before the experiment started. Then, she asked half of them to make themselves small by crossing their arms and legs and sitting in a chair while trying not to be noticed in the room. She asked the other half of the participants to make themselves big by standing tall with their hands on their hips and shoulders back or by leaning back in their chairs with their feet up on the table and their hands/arms held up behind their heads.
After holding these positions for only a few minutes, she then re-tested their hormone levels. Interestingly, those in the more dominant “power poses” had increased testosterone levels and decreased cortisol levels compared to their resting state levels at the beginning of the experiment. Additionally, those who adopted the smaller, more defeated demeanors had decreased testosterone levels and increased cortisol levels compared to their original resting state levels.
These data suggested that those holding the “power poses” triggered hormonal changes to elicit a more empowered, dominant mental state, whereas those maintaining the closed and defeated stances shifted their mental states to a more stressed state.
So… your body language CAN affect YOU, not just those around you.
Dr. Cuddy took this analysis one step further. She performed the same experiment on a new cohort of participants, but she added a rigorous job interview to the experimental design.
After testing original hormone levels, having them pose for 2 minutes (either in power poses or non-power poses), and retesting hormone levels, she then subjected the participants to a stressful interview in which the interviewers were instructed to intensely grill the interviewees, making the interviews very strenuous and taxing. Additionally, the interviewers were specifically trained to show no emotions, giving zero non-verbal cues to indicate whether the interviewees’ performance was going well or going poorly.
She then asked the interviewers to select whether or not they would hire each candidate for the hypothetical position. Interestingly, all of the candidates they chose to hire were those who had been power posing for a mere 2 minutes prior to the interview. And very few, if any, of the non-power posers were chosen to be hired by the panel.
So… your body language behaviors can affect you AND your performance in stressful situations.
These results indicated that power posing increases testosterone (the dominance, “I’m on top of the world” hormone) and decreases cortisol (the stress hormone) to make you less stressed. Furthermore, these tests highlight that being less stressed improves your ability to perform well in traditionally stressful situations.
Finally, as demonstrated by the study, being able to perform well under significant pressure could mean the difference between receiving an offer letter for the job or being dismissed as a potential candidate.
So do your power posing before a big moment!
Whether it’s a talk, a major presentation, a job interview, a pitch for a new client, etc. Whatever it may be, do your power posing beforehand and your potential for success will skyrocket!
One piece of advice though… don’t power pose in front of your potential future boss or the attendees for your presentation. This usually doesn’t go over well! You don’t want to seem arrogant about the situation, you just want to shift your brain’s chemical composition such that you can boost your confidence and perform better under pressure. That’s the point of power posing.
So, before the big moment… find a bathroom (maybe even a bathroom stall) and power pose – stand tall with your hands on your hips, shoulders back, chest out, chin up, and gameface ON! – for a few minutes (2 mins is all it takes), and you’ll be ready to conquer anything that’s about to come your way!
Sources: TED Talk – Amy Cuddy
** Try power posing before your next big gig and let us know how it goes! **
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