Why People Love(d) Power Posing: A Science of Us Conversation

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Photo: ABC Photo Archives/ABC via Getty Images

You’ve heard of power posing, surely. If you adopt the body language of a confident, powerful person, you’ll then begin to act like a confident, powerful person, or so the theory goes. It was the subject of a widely seen 2012 TED Talk (36 million views and counting) featuring Harvard Business School professor Amy Cuddy, and since then the idea has made its way into popular culture. “It’s scientifically proven that if you look good on the outside, you actually become confident and happy,” Jane Krakowski’s character says on the first season of Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, as she does a kind of modified power pose. “It’s called outside-in living, Kimmy. And I have bought two books on it.”

But earlier this week, one of the co-authors on the original power-posing study posted a document to her university website that outlined her (many) reasons for now believing that study was seriously flawed, including, but not limited to, a failed replication attempt in 2015. If power posing doesn’t “work,” as many have phrased it in their reporting, is it no longer worth doing, even if you once found it helpful? And what can explain the cultural fascination with the concept in the first place? On Thursday, the Science of Us staff — Melissa Dahl, Jesse Singal, Cari Romm, and Drake Baer — chatted through these questions. Here’s what we talked about.

Melissa Dahl: Did you guys ever read Where’d You Go Bernadette? There is a character in it who has the “fourth-most-popular TED Talk,” and it’s referred to all the time in the book. It’s so funny. I keep thinking about that now when I read about power posing (the subject of the second-most-popular TED Talk, apparently!).

Drake Baer: This is a bomb going off in the center of the thought leadership–industrial complex.

Jesse Singal: Can’t power pose our ways out of this one.

M.D.: I am curious — do you guys have any thoughts on why “power posing” became the cultural phenomenon it did? I mean, TED, yes, but not every TED Talk blows up and becomes part of the mainstream like this did.

J.S.: I think it told a story people would like to believe, which is that there are fairly easy ways to improve our odds in high-stakes, high-pressure situations where our weaknesses — public speaking, intelligence, nerves in general — might otherwise hinder us.

D.B.: And I would imagine the anecdotal placebo effect is pretty huge. You could watch the video, do it IRL, and be like, Power posing works for me!

C.R.: It also seems like it’s the component of charisma that’s most within our control — “presence” is an elusive term, and you’re kind of stuck with the voice you have, but posture is something you have a hand in.

M.D.: Sometimes it did seem like — is the whole argument just your grandmother telling you, Sit up straight!

D.B.: It’s also pithy enough that’s it’s easily aggregated and shared across the Thought Leadership Universe, from blogs to newspapers to LinkedIn updates.

J.S.: My friend’s wife just tagged me in a disappointed note explaining that she’d planned on power posing before a meeting. I wrote back, “If stuff works for you, you should do it! Your personal habits and hacks do not all need to be ‘scientifically’ backed.”

C.R.: What I wonder about it is — so, okay, maybe the data didn’t pan out in the original study. But now that it’s such an Established Thing, will that be enough to give it a strong placebo effect on its own?

M.D.: Or now that the “it doesn’t work” message has gotten across, will the placebo effect also not work?

J.S.: Yeah, it’s really interesting to think about. Though if you go down that road, any debunking is kinda unethical, in a sense?

C.R.: Like, “Here’s this idea you hold dear and it makes you happy, but whoops, it’s not true and now your life is worse”?

J.S.: Oh, I just mean that I had a tinge of sadness earlier today thinking about all the people who are probably upset that power posing, which they’ve derived great meaning from, doesn’t “work.” Maybe some are abandoning it, or maybe the placebo effect is waning — I’m pretty sure it must be, in some cases? But this is sort of the difference between science and religion. To overstate things a bit.

People should still do it if they like it! It’s harmless. Do I think praying helps people in a scientifically provable way? Meh. But I would never tell someone not to pray.

D.B.: I think there’s also an element of absolute versus relative truth here, with the placebo effect. Something can be personally useful (so, “true,” in a sense) without being The Truest True. People don’t want to do things that are useful to them if they aren’t True, because they want permission from Science.

C.R.: And there’s a little bit of an element of truthiness versus truth. Even if it doesn’t hold up, the concept could still feel right to some people. It’s a thing that sounds like it could, or maybe should, make sense.

M.D.: The other thing is, surely there is something in the idea of “expansive posture” in the way that other people see you.

C.R.: Did they take that into account at all in the original study?

J.S.: No, it was purely a test of self-report and hormone levels. And behavior, in terms of the gambling task.

How could it not be the case that our posture and bearing overall affects how other people see us? That said, I think the “original” power-posing “instructions” were to do it, like, before a big meeting or negotiating session? Not during, I don’t think — the idea being it fills you with hormones or confidence or whatever. But, yeah, the basic point totally stands. Obviously, posture matters in various ways.

D.B.: Also, I think there might be a point to be made that thinky, knowledge workers (meaning white collar) are often quite disembodied/disassociated. So maybe the anecdotal “power pose” effect is residue of mindfulness.

One way to frame mindfulness is that it’s attending to physical sensations. Getting people who are stuck in their heads all day to be the least bit attentive to what’s happening below their neck has to have some sort of non-zero effect. It’s like Ken Robinson’s point (speaking of TED Talks) about how bodies are just for carrying you from meeting to meeting. (“You” meaning your head, obviously.)

C.R.: So power posing could be helpful anyway, in that it reminds us that we exist in corporeal form and not just as Slack presences.

D.B.: Yes. And since it comes from Harvard Business School, the Vatican of capitalism, it’s very authoritative.

J.S.: An app that teaches you that you have a body.

C.R.: So that’s what’s been hitting the keyboard these past eight hours.