Welcome to The Science Behind Success — a new blog series that explores the best ways to help our brains perform better at work. With psychological research and interviews with leaders in the field, we’re showing you how psychology can help you overcome workplace obstacles and excel in your career. Because a little mindset change could go a long way.
The summer after I graduated college, I watched Amy Cuddy’s massively popular TED Talk, “Your body language may shape who you are.”
How do I know it was the summer after graduation? Because I remember standing in Starbucks bathrooms before interviews, hands on hips, with my iPhone timer set to two minutes. “Power Posing” was my secret trick — and I truly believed it helped calm me down. I just couldn’t believe someone hadn’t told me sooner.If you haven’t seen Amy’s TED Talk, you should watch if for no other reason than she tells a moving personal story. But, in short, here’s the gist — in 2010, social psychologist Cuddy and her colleagues published a study they conducted at Harvard University. Their study, called “Power Posing”, asked participants to sit in either a high-power pose or low-power pose for two minutes.
A high-power pose is any open, expansive posture, whereas a low-power pose is a closed, contracted posture.
Ultimately, Cuddy and her colleagues found participants who sat in high-power poses felt more comfortable and performed better in interviews, compared to those who sat in low-power poses.
But it goes deeper than that, and this is the part of her research I’d like to focus on today — Cuddy found high-power poses, like sitting with arms behind your head or hands on hips, actually changed the participant’s body chemistry.
High-power posers experienced increases in testosterone, and decreases in cortisol. In other words, their body language alone boosted hormones attributed to the feeling of “power”, while simultaneously quieting hormones attributed to the feeling of “stress”.
For a moment, imagine the implications of this. Imagine a world in which the way you stand, sit, and move can literally change the way you feel. Ultimately, Cuddy’s study supports the notion that this a true, real phenomenon happening every day.
But then, despite the popularity of Cuddy’s TED Talk (which was the second most-popular TED Talk ever, with over 46 million views), there came a backlash against her research — critics called it “pseudoscience”, and researchers said they couldn’t replicate Cuddy’s findings in their own studies.
To rebut the critics, in March 2018 Cuddy published an academic paper that analyzes over 55 studies and offers evidence to support the claim that an expansive posture can make people feel more powerful.
Despite the compelling arguments put forth in her paper, we are nonetheless left with the question — can our body language actually affect our body’s chemistry, and how much control does our body language have over our emotions? I set out on a mission to find out, if for no other reason than I’ve always been a deep advocate for the validity of “power posing”.
Our Body Language Can Influence Our Chemistry — Sort Of
To investigate the influence of posture on our body’s chemistry, I spoke with Dr. Matsumoto, Ph.D., an expert in the field of microexpressions, gesture, emotion, and nonverbal behavior, and the director of Humintell.
Dr. Matsumoto takes us back much further than Cuddy’s study, first mentioning a study conducted in 1983 by Ekman, Levinson and Friesen, which supports the hypothesis that posture can trigger certain emotions.
While Dr. Matsumoto concedes there is research to support body posture’s affect on emotions, he’s quick to add, “I believe that effect is quite limited to people who are in a neutral state to begin with. Engaging in such postures or gestures or facial expressions would not necessarily trigger the experience in individuals who already are experiencing an emotion, especially a strong one.”
This makes sense — if you’re experiencing extreme emotional distress, putting your hands on your hips likely can’t “override” those stronger emotions.
However, there’s still research to support the notion that our body language and facial expressions can alter our emotional state. Researchers at the University of Kansas, for instance, instructed participants to either smile or hold neutral facial expressions. Afterwards, the participants were asked to engage in a stressful task.
The researchers found participants who’d smiled genuinely before the stressful task had lower heart rate levels after the task, demonstrating the possibility that merely changing your facial expression can mitigate your body’s reaction to stress — a sure sign that our body language can influence, and even change, our chemistry.
The Link Between Our Body Language and Our Mood
An experiment published in the Journal of Behavior Therapy and Experimental Psychiatry found how we walk can affect our mood.
In the study, participants were instructed to walk “happily” (with a straight back and light steps), or “unhappily” (slouched over and heavy steps). Neither group was told what their body language meant. Afterwards, participants were shown positive and negative words, and asked to write down the words they remembered most.
As you might’ve guessed, participants who’d been trained to walk happily recalled more positive words, while the unhappy walkers remembered more negative words.
The results support the idea that our body language can affect our mood — and, additionally, demonstrate the possibility that our body language can also influence what we pay attention to, which can indirectly affect how we feel about situations.
For instance, imagine I walk into work with my shoulders slouched and my feet dragging. As I approach the elevator, I notice a coworker look at me, then decide to take the stairs. My body language might influence how I notice and process this information — I knew she didn’t like me, that’s why she decided to take the stairs.
On the contrary, if I walk into my office building with my shoulders back and steps light, I might process this information differently — Oh, she must just not have seen me.
It makes sense that our body language can influence the chemicals in our brain, and vice versa, since our brain takes cues from our body on how to feel and process information.
Our emotional, mental, and physical states are undoubtedly intertwined. For instance, depression, an emotional and mental state, has been shown to affect the body’s physical well-being. So why wouldn’t it work the other way around?
In response to the connection between our body language and chemicals in our brain, Dr. Matsumoto told me, “There are multiple reasons why our body language is tied to chemicals in our brain. For one, an event that triggers an emotion that produces the body language in the first place would be associated with neurophysiological and neurochemical processes. So it makes sense that body language is tied to those processes. These connections are likely to strengthen over time.”
How to Use Your Body Language to Your Benefit
No body language in the world can trick you into believing you’re something you’re not. For instance, “power posing” won’t work on me if I put on scrubs and pretend I’m ready to perform surgery. I’ll still undoubtedly feel fear and stress as a result of a situation in which I’m truly powerless.
Which goes back to Dr. Matsumoto’s point, that we must be in a neutral state in order to influence our emotions through body language.
When asked what advice he’d give business leaders in regards to body language, Dr. Matsumoto said this — “My advice would be to first gain actual competence in your field. The last thing anyone should want is to look confident and not really be competent. Once one has a certain degree for a lot of competence, adopting certain body postures may help to feel even more confident and powerful … but they’ve got to believe it and be able to back it up with real competence.”
So this brings us to the final question — does power posing actually work?
I’m personally always going to be an advocate for it. Whether it’s real or not, my body language allowed me to trick my thoughts into believing I felt powerful — and, in some respect, it’s all about channeling “mind over matter” anyway, right?