If you’ve read my last two posts (here and here) your face is now a picture of joyful serenity. But there’s more to your emotional life than just a happy face. Yes, the Facial Feedback Hypothesis of Emotion refers specifically to the facial muscles, but other muscles in your body also contribute to your emotional state. This post is not about a specific muscle, but how the way you stand or sit can affect how you feel. In particular, this post is all about confidence. If you just listen to your mother then you’re already on the right track. I’m not talking about eating your vegetables; I’m talking about stop slouching and sit up straight!
There’s not that much research on body posture and confidence, but a study from Spain (Briñol 2009) illustrates how the brain pays attention to your posture to decide how it should feel. Subjects were asked to either “sit up straight … and push out their chest”, or “sit slouched forward … looking at their knees”. While these postures are “confident” and “doubtful” respectively, those words were never used. Subjects were then asked to write down either their 3 best qualities or their 3 worst qualities while sitting in this position. Scientists wanted to know if body posture affected the subject’s response to these positive or negative thoughts.
The results showed that subjects in confident postures assigned to write positive qualities showed improvements in their attitudes about the future. Interestingly though, the confident posture did not simply lead to an improvement in their mood. Subjects in confident postures assigned to think about their negative qualities were more confident in those thoughts as well. This confidently negative group had a worse attitude toward the future. In contrast, when subjects sat in a slumped, doubtful posture their thoughts did not affect their attitude at all.
The confident posture subjects did not necessarily feel more confident overall, or feel happier, they just expressed more confidence in the answers they gave. And since the answers they gave were about themselves, they were either were more confident about their positive characteristics or more confident about their negative characteristics. It as if the unconscious brain simultaneously noticed their thoughts and their confident body posture and decided, “Yes, I am definitely awesome/terrible.” And in the doubtful posture it inferred, “Eh, whatever”. The quick take away: if you’re going to think negative thoughts about yourself, don’t be so confident in your assessment. Or perhaps more importantly, if you want a more positive outlook, then think positive thoughts while taking a confident posture.
In another study – this one from the early 80s in Texas (Riskind, 1982) – under the pretense of recording muscle activity, subjects were placed in a confident or doubtful posture for several minutes. While in this posture the researcher told the subject that they had done well on a test they just took, regardless of how they actually did on the test (at least the scientists were lying in a postive way). After a few minutes subjects were allowed to return to normal posture, and they were asked to try to copy a set of geometric figures without lifting their pencil. Unfortunately, several of the figures were actually impossible to draw without lifting the pencil (sometimes scientists lie in negative ways … all in the interest of science). The subjects did not know the figures were impossible, so the scientists measured how long it took before they gave up. They found that subjects who had been placed in a doubtful posture gave up more easily than subjects who had been placed in a confident posture.
Remember, all the subjects were told that they did well on a test. The confident posture subjects heard the good news about their performance and internalized it. That is the brain heard it was good at tests, noticed that it was in a confident posture, and concluded: “Yes, I am good at taking tests.” Thus, when faced with the difficult new task, they kept trying. The doubtful posture subjects heard that they did well on the test and their brains must have concluded … well, not much. Thus, without the extra motivation to try harder, they just gave up.
Having a confident posture on its own might not be enough to improve your mood, but the research shows that it does modulate your brains response to your thoughts. So if you want to be more confident in something (“I’m going to ace this job interview”, “I’m going to kill all the other tributes”, etc) then think these thoughts while sticking your chest out and keeping your chin up.
Your brain wants to help you (I love anthropomorphizing things as much as flies yearn for a big pile o’ $h!t). So when you’re listening to compliments, act like you believe them. That will give your brain the a little kickstart to think “That’s right. I am awesome”.
On top of the internal feedback, posture can have a social feedback component. It’s easy to think of your emotional state as being completely determined by yourself, but other people will automatically perceive and react to your posture. And you will (consciously or unconsciously) notice their reactions and be affected by them. That is one of the central tenets of sociology: you behave as others treat you. If you have a confident posture people will react to you differently than if you have a doubtful posture. This effect on other people will feedback to you. Not only does your brain notice “Oh I’m standing up straight, I must be confident” it also notices, “Oh wow, everyone seems to have a lot of confidence in me. I must be pretty confident.”
So in conclusion, listen to your mother and stop slouching … and it couldn’t hurt to eat your vegetables too.
If you liked this post then check out my book - The Upward Spiral: Using Neuroscience to Reverse the Course of Depression, One Small Change at a Time
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