The Science of Success

How we can all achieve our goals

Feeling Timid and Powerless? Maybe It's How You're Sitting.

The way you sit or stand tells your brain how powerful you are.

In the animal kingdom, the alphas often convey their dominant status through posture. They rise to their full height, stick out their chests and fan their tail feathers, all to take up as much space as possible and establish their powerful presence. The weaker omegas, on the other hand, bow down low, tucking in their limbs and tails and signaling their submission.


Human beings are no different. The most powerful guy in the room is usually the one whose physical movements are most expansive - legs apart, leaning forward, arms spread wide while he gestures. He's the CEO who isn't afraid to swing his feet up onto the conference room table, hands behind his head and elbows jutting outward, confident in his power to spread himself out however he damn well pleases.


The nervous, powerless person holds himself very differently - he makes himself physically as small as possible: shoulders hunched, feet together, hands in his lap or arms wrapped protectively across his chest. He's the guy in the corner who is hoping he won't be called on, and often is barely noticed.


Psychologists have known for some time that powerful and powerless individuals adopt these poses unconsciously, and that the poses themselves are in fact perceived (also unconsciously) by others as indictors of status. Your posture, like it or not, tells people a lot about you.

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But more recent research reveals a new, far more surprising relationship between power and posing - that their influence works in both directions. In other words, holding powerful poses can actually make you more powerful.


Researchers Dana Carney, Amy Cuddy, and Andy Yap asked male and female participants to hold two poses, each for one minute. The poses were either high power (the CEO feet-up-on-the-table pose with hands behind head; standing feet apart while leaning over a table, supported by one hand resting on the table) or low power (sitting with shoulders slumped forward and hands in lap; standing with feet together and arms folded tightly across chest.)


After holding the high power poses, participants not only reported that they felt significantly more "powerful" and "in charge", but were also more willing to take a risk when offered the chance to gamble their study earnings for double the money.

 

The high power posers also experienced significant increases in testosterone and decreases in cortisol (measured by saliva), a neuroendocrine profile that has been linked in past research to dominance, competitiveness, adaptive responding to challenges, disease resistance, and leadership ability. So not only did high power posing create psychological and behavioral changes typically associated with powerful people, it created physiological changes characteristic of the powerful as well.

Low power posers, on the other hand, experienced significant drops in testosterone and increases in cortisol - giving them the typical physiological profile of the nervous and risk-averse omega, and leaving them feeling less powerful and less willing to take a chance on a big win.

 

So, take a look at how you are sitting right now. Take a moment to think about what you are typically doing with your body when you are at your desk, in a meeting, or simply socializing. What message is your body language - your posture, your stance, your gesturing - sending to everyone in the room? And more importantly, what message is it sending to your own brain? If you sit all curled up in a ball, or stand with your arms wrapped around your chest like battle armor, you are going to end up feeling less powerful and less confident because your brain will assume that that's what you are.


It's up to you to make sure your brain is getting the right message. If you want more power - not just the appearance of power, but the genuine feeling of power - then spread your limbs wide, stand up straight, and lean into the conversation. Carry yourself like the guy in charge, and in a matter of minutes your body will start to feel it, and you will start to believe it.

 

Follow me on Twitter @hghalvorson

Heidi Grant Halvorson, Ph.D., is a social psychologist and author of Succeed: How We Can Reach Our Goals.

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