Power Poses Might Actually Be Useless

A new study undermines the idea that you can fake it till you make it.

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Dec 1 2016, 10:02pm

One of the most popular TED Talks ever—viewed 37 million times and counting—posits that subtle changes to your body language can help you unlock hidden wellsprings of confidence. It's a powerful idea, one that recently inspired a New York Times bestseller by the Columbia University researcher who first studied it—and a lot of unnecessary legs-up-on-desk-and-hands-behind-head posturing around the office.

That idea, however, has recently come under scrutiny: In a new study, University of Pennsylvania researchers argue that "embodied cognition"—the idea you can alter the perception of yourself through bodily movement—is a load of malarkey. And in October, the co-author of the original 2010 study publicly distanced herself from the research. Scandal in the power-posing world.

In the new study, the University of Pennsylvania researchers performed a fairly ridiculous experiment in which they recruited 247 students, randomly pairing them up in games of tug-o-war. Before each match, they took saliva swabs and tested the students' testosterone and cortisol levels, hormones linked to increased aggression and stress. Afterward, even if the winner wasn't conclusive, the researchers told one student that they'd won and the other that they'd lost. 

Then, the researchers had each participant hold a high (standing over a table, arms spread out like Captain America), low (hugging himself, with each hand on the opposite shoulder, legs crossed) or neutral (just standing there, arms at his side) stance. The participants didn't feel weird doing this at all.

When the researchers swabbed the saliva again for the same hormones, they found no signs of increased confidence, leading them to their startling conclusion. "The poses had no effect on risk taking, feelings of power, or levels of testosterone or cortisol," says Kristopher Smith, the study's lead researcher. "Power poses aren't effective." 

In some cases, he adds, the losers who took high power poses—a popular strategy touted for regaining confidence—actually seemed to exhibit lower testosterone levels than those who took more neutral and submissive poses. This likely had nothing to do with the fact that they were being forced to pose like five-year-olds in superhero costumes.

Smith is skeptical about this part of the result, citing the need for further research. A classic study of birds, however, could hold a clue about why he's onto something. In 1977, an American entomologist examined status signals among sparrows. He found that low-ranking birds were unlikely to take high-power poses. The reason: Dominant sparrows—much like schoolyard bullies—tended to realize the fraud among them.