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We’ve all heard about the importance of body language. Maybe you’ve been told not to slouch during a job interview, to use a firm handshake or to stand up straight during business meetings to leave a more powerful impression.
But what if I told you that your posture goes beyond leaving an impact on those around you? Would you believe that a single pose has the power to chemically alter who you are, to change your confidence levels or enhance your ability to handle stressful situations?
Amy Cuddy, a prominent social scientist at Harvard, has spent years finding answers to these questions about body language. Her studies revealed that body language has a much greater effect on our hormonal balance and decisions than most of us realize, and these changes can have sweeping effects on our entire career.
The most fundamental way to classify someone’s stance is by the “power” that it evokes. While most human poses lie somewhere in the middle, there are certain high-powered and low-powered poses that define either side of the spectrum.
A high-power pose is a position in which you make yourself large and are essentially “opened up” to those around you. It can involve putting your arms up and out, sitting with your legs open, putting your hands on your hips or behind your head, and generally making yourself “big.” These expansive poses display feelings of confidence, success and power.
A weaker pose is one where people turn inwards and essentially “wrap themselves” up in their own bodies or arms. It can involve crossing arms and/or legs tightly, crossing hands, hunching or looking downwards. These contracted poses not only signify helplessness and insecurity; they close you off from others.
Amy Cuddy conducted an experiment where she had people hold high-power and low-power poses for two minutes, then tested their risk tolerance as well as various hormone levels immediately afterwards.
Testosterone, traditionally known as a male sex hormone (although it is present in both men and women), is often referred to as a “power hormone” since it contributes to confidence, competitiveness and aggression.
It turns out that the testosterone levels of participants in Cuddy’s study were dramatically different before and after standing in these power poses. In a matter of minutes, it appears that high-power poses lead to an average of 20% more testosterone in the blood. Meanwhile, the low-power poses lead to a 10% drop in testosterone.
Another hormone that affects our ability to manage challenges is cortisol. Cortisol is a natural part of our body that helps us maintain a healthy metabolism and blood pressure levels. However, it has also been deemed the “stress hormone” due to its evolutionary connection to fight-or-flight situations.
Cortisol was traditionally released, along with adrenaline, when we were in danger; these hormones would increase our heart rate, release more sugars (for energy) and enhance our ability to repair tissues. However, cortisol also stunts other critical functions and disrupts essential body processes, and when its levels remain high due to perpetual stress, it can lead to a slew of health issues. If you release cortisol for extended periods of time, it can cause a fixation on negative events and lead to increased anxiety and risk aversion.
Cuddy’s study found that after standing in high-power poses, participants’ cortisol levels fell sharply by around 25%, while the low-power posers’ levels rose by about 15%.
In 2012 Cuddy and two other professors conducted a Harvard University study examining the effect that posing has on performance in situations that involved social evaluation.
They had participants stand in high-power and low-power poses before preparing and delivering a speech in front of evaluators for a job. The participants were video recorded and evaluated for overall performance and hireability. According to the study, “those who prepared with high-power poses performed better and were more likely to be chosen for hire.” Both the performance and hireability of the candidate was based on the speaker’s presence rather than the content of the speech, meaning their confidence and enthusiasm had the capacity to override the actual content of the speech they delivered.
The study also found that the preparatory power poses had no effect on body posture during the actual interview, which proves that pre-emptive posing had a marked effect on performance that was completely unrelated to physical presence.
Cuddy’s findings are remarkable in part because they go beyond what we’ve been told about body language. Perhaps standing tall in front of an investor will make you appearmore confident, but standing in a high-power pose for two minutes before meeting the investor will actually make you more confident.
These fascinating findings reveal the complex role that hormones and evolution play in our personal and professional success, and they offer a simple tool that anyone can leverage to boost their performance in a variety of business settings. To learn more about Cuddy’s amazing discoveries, you can watch her full TED lecture here.