In Defense of Power Poses

Don't ditch your superhero cape just yet

Posted Sep 30, 2016

Image Courtesy of Globoforce
Source: Image Courtesy of Globoforce

I gave the wall of technicolor donuts on spikes a dubious once-over. Waiting outside an amphitheater for the next conference talk to begin, I sipped my coffee and unabashedly eavesdropped on the conversations around me.

“I can’t believe I’m actually going to be in the same room as her,” exclaimed a pert blond woman to her friend.

I winced.

I was out of my element — a crusty, crabby academic at a shiny corporate wellness meeting. I was there to give a talk on emotional labor in the workplace, but also to get a sense of how the other half lived.

Less than skeptically, it turns out.

You can certainly find enthusiasm at academic conferences, but at least part of the gleam in attendees’ eyes is due to the anticipation of raking research over the proverbial coals, ruffling up its feathers to find its weak spots. Only when a new idea has survived this process, shown itself to be solid and replicable, does the oohing and ahhing and speculating about future research directions over drinks begin.

Image Courtesy of Globoforce
Source: Image Courtesy of Globoforce

I was familiar with the speaker, social psychologist and recent popular science author Amy Cuddy. I knew of her work primarily because I had for many years assigned her research paper on “power poses” to my upper-level emotion class. This paper demonstrated that people randomly assigned to hold body postures that were associated with communicating strength or dominance both felt more powerful and experienced changes in hormones (both those associated with dominance and those associated with stress) as a result of holding such postures.

I also knew of her work because the hormonal part of these findings had come under scrutiny for both failing to replicate in other laboratories and for statistical questions about whether the original study was set up to find true effects even were they present.

In my academic corner of the world, these new concerns had caused a bit of a ruckus. Particularly since Cuddy had since taken the ideas to the public at large in the form of a best-selling book and a tour that included such minor stops as The Colbert Report and Dr. Oz.

Thus, my bit of eye-rolling at the donut-proximal fan’s uncritical adulation.

The amphitheater doors opened with a dramatic flourish and we were ushered in to flashing blue strobe lights and club music, none of which did anything to quell the alarm bells ringing in my mind. Nor did the rather fawning introduction provided by the conference host.

But then Amy Cuddy took the stage and completely won me over.

She did so by presenting science thoughtfully and carefully — she talked about her original study, but she also brought to bear many other studies revealing evidence for the importance of nonverbal cues and confidence for performance and persuasion. Though this particular non-academic audience was highly unlikely to confront her, she directly addressed the failures to replicate the hormonal findings with candor and humility.

Purchased from Adobe Stock Images
Source: Purchased from Adobe Stock Images

Cuddy said she sometimes gets emails asking for how many seconds and how long before a job interview or class presentation one should hold the power poses. She stressed that these emailers (and, by implication, many of her critics) were missing her main point: her research and book were not about a cute magic trick where you can stand like superwoman and get a quick shot of hormones that gives you a sneaky advantage over your competitors.

Rather, her point is a much more global one, about how we enter spaces and social transactions with our bodies as well as our words and ideas. That the choices we make about how to present ourselves physically will have implications for the amount of power we wield in those situations, the extent to which we influence the thoughts and actions of those engaged in the situation with us.

Power poses are having a bad week. One of the lead authors on the original paper published a list of reasons that she now questions her own study’s results. This highly charged missive was released the same week as a huge debate between two of the lead thinkers in psychology’s replication crisis took place at NYU.

Cuddy herself responded to the power poses critiques and some of the larger scientific currents in a statement released to the NYTimes here.

I’m sharing my conference experience because if I hadn’t been in the audience that day, I think that I would have read Cuddy’s statement with some incredulity. Having seen pictures of her posing in front of cardboard cutouts of Superwoman and having read the popular press’ cartoon version of her arguments, I think I would have doubted whether she presents her findings to the public in the careful way she presents in the statement.

She did. She does. And I believe her ideas have merit.