Remember when your mother would tell you, "STAND UP STRAIGHT"?
Turns out, Mama ain't no fool!
Your mother carped about your posture as a kid because she wanted you to become a successful adult. See, Mama knows that posture plays a pivotal role in whether you feel, and subsequently act, powerful.
According to a recent study published in the January 2011 issue of Psychological Science, "posture expansiveness"—using one's posture to open up the body and occupy space—activates a sense of power in the mind, making people feel and behave as if they are in charge. Interestingly, the sense of power produced by posture expansiveness is not contingent on one's actual position of power, such as rank or title.
In the study, researchers Adam Galinsky, professor at Kellogg School of Management and Kellogg PhD candidate Li Huang, along with professor Deborah Gruenfeld, professor at Stanford Graduate School of Business, and Stanford PhD candidate Lucia Guillory, studied the behavioral effects of having a high-power role versus being in a high-power posture.
The researchers found that posture is more important to a person's sense of power than one's actual title or position. "Going into the research we figured role would make a big difference, but shockingly the effect of posture dominated the effect of role in each and every study," Huang explains.
In the first two experiments, the researchers placed individuals in either high- or low-power roles while sitting in either an expansive (open) or constricted (closed) body posture.
An expansive posture means that the participants sat in a chair with one arm on the armrest and the other arm on the back of a neighboring chair with their legs crossed so that the ankle of one leg rested on the thigh of the other leg and extended beyond the leg of the chair. For the constricted posture, participants sat with their hands under their thighs, shoulders dropped low, and legs together.
Researchers found that only posture—not role—activates power-related behaviors. For example, during these experiments participants completed word exercises and a blackjack game. Participants with an expansive posture thought about more power-related words and took more action than those in the constricted posture.
When the participants reported how powerful they felt during the study, the people in a high-power role reported feeling more powerful than those in the low-power roles. Yet, this sense of power from the high-power role had little effect on action.
The role of power, as well as posture, both—independently—affect a person's sense of power, but posture is more important in activating the power-related behaviors. This means that a high-power role can make you feel powerful but doesn't mean you will act in charge. In order to act in charge, you need a high-power posture.
The third experiment in the study provided further support for this finding. In this experiment participants recalled a past experience of being in a high- or low-power role while siting in either an expansive or constricted posture. While in their respective postures, researchers asked the participants if they would take action in three different scenarios. The researchers discovered that posture had a stronger influence on action than remembering being in a high- or low-power role.
You might have known that standing up straight helps you look the part—confident and in charge—but Mama knew that it makes you think powerfully and take action.
So, why don't you straighten that spine? Pull those shoulders back. Arch that chest. Reach out those arms and pick up that phone. Dial your mother and, in your big girl or big boy voice, tell her:
Thank you, Mommy...for helping me enhance my sense of potency and activate my power-related behaviors!
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Powerful postures versus powerful roles: which is the proximate correlate of thought and behavior? Psychological Science. 2011 Jan 1; 22(1): 95-102.