Under the Influence

How power, status, and social hierarchy shape us.

Power Moves: Lessons From AMC's Mad Men

What does your nonverbal posture say about your social dominance?

When Mad Men started it's fifth season on AMC, I was treated to a pretty good laugh when I was alerted to the hashtag #draping. Viewers of the popular show will likely be aware that the lead character of Mad Men, Don Draper (Jon Hamm), is pictured in advertisements for the popular television show sitting on a couch with his hand draped over the back of a couch, holding either a cigarette or a cocktail. It appears that fans of the popular show have taken to posing in this fashion, and then posting to tumblr.

Whenever I see these #draping photos I tend to think about a now classic study of dominance and submissive postural stances conducted by Larisa Tiedens of Stanford University. In the research, Tiedens and Fragle (2003) sought to determine whether people take on dominant or submissive postural stances, when reacting to the dominant or submissive posture of others. Would people pose dominantly when faced with other dominant postures, thereby escalating a competition for status within an interaction? Or alternatively, would people take on submissive postures when faced with dominance, to diffuse possible tension in the interaction?

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The studies themselves were brilliantly constructed: In my favorite, participants came to the experiment and had an interaction with a partner who was an experiment confederate. The confederate posed throughout the experiment in either a dominant or submissive posture. Dominance looks basically like #draping, whereas the submissive posture involves pulling the arms inward and curling oneself into a ball while seated. Participants' postures were then recorded during the interaction.

So how did participants change their posture during the interactions? Interestingly enough, participants tended to take on complimentary postural stances in response to the posture of the confederate. That is, if the confederate sat like Don Draper, the participant took on a submissive stance. In contrast, if the confederate sat in a submissive manner, the participant sat just like they were #draping before an episode of Mad Men!

Tiedens and Fragale (2003) reason that this response is an automatic and potentially unconscious behavioral response to dominance competition. That is, when faced with clear dominance signals, people tend to behave submissively to avoid potentially aggressive and costly dominance confrontations that could result in conflict or injury. It's fascinating research, and it tells us a lot about our inherent desires to avoid situations that could put us in unnecessary conflict that could sap our metabolic resources--fighting for superiority takes energy.

Have you ever realized your nonverbal behavior was changing to compliment that of the people around you? I'd love to hear about what made you realize this was happening! Contact me on Twitter @mwkraus or visit my research blog, Psych Your Mind, to learn more about status and nonverbal behavior!

 

Tiedens, L., & Fragale, A. (2003). Power moves: Complementarity in dominant and submissive nonverbal behavior. Journal of Personality & Social Psychology, 84 (3), 558-568 DOI: 10.1037//0022-3514.84.3.558

Michael W. Kraus is Assistant Professor of Social-Personality Psychology at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign.

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