Social Psychologist Amy Cuddy’s research on power and dominance shows that just two minutes of simple preparation can increase one’s confidence and performance. Her research stems from the study of power dynamics and nonverbal expressions of power and dominance. Power and dominance are characterized with body postures that open up the body, such as alpha primates extending their arms high over their heads, which is a pose humans inherently do when accomplishing something such as winning a race. Lack of power is associated with postures that close the body and make it smaller, such as hunching over or crossing the legs and folding the hands in the lap.
A good place to see the contrast between the two types of poses is in the classroom. When the instructor asks a question, some people raise their hands high in the air, while others who know the answer to the question, if they raise their hands at all, will tentatively raise their hands while their elbows are glued to their desks.
These poses are associated with feeling powerful or powerless, but could assuming these poses cause changes in these feelings of power? In a study published in 2010, Carney, Cuddy, & Yap designed an experiment to see if assuming power poses could change risk taking behavior and hormonal levels known to be associated with power and dominance. Higher levels of testosterone (dominance hormone) and lower levels of cortisol (stress hormone) are found in alpha animals as well as powerful leaders, and these leaders are found to take more risks.
The researchers randomly assigned participants to either a high power pose or a low power pose group. They took saliva samples of the subjects, and then asked them to assume one of the high power or low power positions for two minutes. Subjects were unaware of the reason for taking such positions. After the two minutes, the subjects were given $2, and stated that they could keep the money, or roll a pair of dice for a 50/50 chance of doubling their money. Participants also rated how powerful and in charge they felt on a likert scale of 1 (not at all) to 4 (a lot). Then, another saliva sample was taken.
86% of those in the high power pose group took the risk to gamble, while 60% in the low power pose group chose to roll the dice. From baseline levels, those in the high power group had a 20% increase in testosterone, compared to the low power group, whose testosterone decreased by 10%. Cortisol decreased by 25% in the high power group, and increased 15% in the low power group. High power posers reported significantly higher feelings of feeling powerful and in charge than those in the low power pose group.
Cuddy, Wilmuth, & Carney then wanted to see if these findings applied to socially threatening situations where confidence and feelings of power are important for success. They designed a structured observation of subjects undergoing a stressful job interview with no verbal feedback. Beforehand, subjects assumed either low or high power positions for two minutes. Coders, who were unaware of the hypothesis or conditions, were asked to review the recordings of these interviews and choose the candidates they would hire. They chose those who had posed in the high power pose before the interview over those who posed in the low power pose beforehand.
This is enough evidence to convince me to sit at my desk with my feet up and my arms behind my head for two minutes before a presentation or other stressful situation. I have practiced this in my work environment, and have found it to be effective. I am also more aware of when I am reverting into a folded position, and then consciously open myself up.
The next time you find yourself in a stressful evaluative social situation, give this technique a try. It only takes two minutes. Find somewhere private, and raise your hands above your head or put your hands on your hips for two minutes. While it may seem a bit silly, research shows that this hormonally sets one up for more success, and who doesn’t want to walk into a stressful situation feeling more confident?