Can you trick yourself into being confident? The big debate.

After watching a TED Talk by Amy Cuddy about how our body language affects our confidence (which I highly recommend for anyone interested), I wanted to look at the chemical changes that occur within the brains neurotransmitter levels (the chemicals that transmit information in our brain and body) in relation to the content of her talk.

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Firstly, what was the summary of her research? She found that by standing tall with your arms outstretched – in a “high-power” pose – neurotransmitter levels are altered in the body. The hormone testosterone (responsible for giving us confidence) increases and the neurotransmitter cortisol (the stress hormone) decreases. When a “low-power” pose was adopted (when subjects hunched over and hugged themselves) the opposite effect occurred –  testosterone levels decreased and cortisol levels rose.

What I found really fascinating was her claim that this change was perceivable to other people. In her experiment, a group of subjects underwent a fake job interview presentation. They were split into two groups; one group performed “high-power” poses prior to the interview, and the other performed “low-power” poses. The interviewers were not aware which candidates had adopted which pose. Despite not knowing which candidate did what, they preferably chose to hire those who had adopted the “high-power” pose before the interview, despite that fact that the prior body position had no effect on body language during the presentation.

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Top Line “High-power” poses. Bottom Line “Low-power” poses. (Amy Cuddy, Harvard University).

Is this really true? Can you really trick your body into being confident when you don’t feel it? As a neuroscientist, I was interested in the chemical changes that were claimed to occur – could this simple act of standing tall really change the chemicals released by the body?

Upon further investigation, I found a furious debate between researchers on whether “high-power” posing actually works, or whether it was just a placebo effect with no change in neurotransmitter levels. A lot of research has been conducted attempting to replicate the results found by Amy Cuddy’s team – with very little success. The overwhelming evidence has shown that while these power poses make people feel more powerful, the biological and behavioural translation is minimal. In fact, one of the original co-authors to Cuddy’s work, Dana Carney, has since spoken out about the conflicting scientific evidence, stating it shows that the effects of “high-power” posing cannot be replicated and therefore cannot have a biological cause.

In studies that replicate the methodology of the original study (but with larger sample sizes), the results were disappointing. Several studies showed that interviewees performed no differently, and “high-power” posers were not hired at a greater rate than “low-power” posers. Studies that examined the changes in hormone levels were consistent with the evidence that “high-power” posing has no effect on confidence, or neurotransmitter levels.

Despite this, the TED talk is really convincing and does pose a dilemma for me. I wanted to believe this was true – that I could change the way I act and feel just by posing by myself for 2 minutes. There have also been millions of viewers to this TED talk that have self-reported the miraculous effect that “high-power” posing has had for them. For me, I have had to accept that while I may wish it to be true, there is little evidence to prove that “high-power” posing effects your neurochemistry. But despite this, I think if you’re going for that job interview, or a big meeting, or you’re just not feeling great that day, take two minutes to adopt some power poses – tell yourself you can do it, and trick your body into being confident. It may not have a chemical basis behind it, but who doesn’t love a good old placebo effect?

Author: Rosie Porter

Edited by Molly Campbell

References

Cuddy, Amy J.C., Caroline A. Wilmuth, and Dana R. Carney. “The Benefit of Power Posing Before a High-Stakes Social Evaluation.” Harvard Business School Working Paper, No. 13-027, September 2012.

The link to Amy Cuddy’s TED talk: https://www.ted.com/talks/amy_cuddy_your_body_language_shapes_who_you_are

Michigan State University “‘Power Poses’ Don’t Work, Studies Suggest.” NeuroscienceNews. 11 September 2017. [http://neurosciencenews.com/power-poses-psychology-7458/]

To read more about Dana Carney’s viewpoint you can read this statement released by her:

http://faculty.haas.berkeley.edu/dana_carney/pdf_my%20position%20on%20power%20poses.pdf

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