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Famous psychology findings — power posing makes you bolder! — are failing the replication test

Recent studies have suggested that posing in a powerful position (particularly the wide, hands-on-hip “Superman” stance) influences hormones and behavior.

A friend of mine, who is a freelance writer like me, once told me that he always stands while negotiating a contract with an editor on the phone.

“It makes you feel more powerful, and that helps you ask for more money,” he said.

Ever since, I’ve been following his advice. And, if anecdotes were evidence, I’d have to say that such “power posing” appears to work. At least, I think I do better at negotiating money matters while standing.

That belief has been reinforced in recent years by studies suggesting that posing in a powerful position (particularly the wide, hands-on-hip “Superman” stance) influences hormones and behavior.  

In one well-cited 2010 study involving 42 men and women, Harvard social psychologist Amy Cuddy and colleagues reported that people who assumed a “high-power” pose for just one minute had higher levels of testosterone and lower levels of cortisol than those who assumed a “low-power” pose (sitting with hands in lap or standing in a self-embrace). Furthermore, the high-power posers demonstrated a higher tolerance for risk-taking. 

Cuddy’s TED talk on this topic is the second most popular of all TED talks, and has been watched more than 36 million times. But, as psychologist and journalist Christian Jarrett points out in a recent article for BPS Research Digest, Cuddy’s work has not been successfully replicated: 

Last year researchers led by Eva Ranehill at the University of Zurich attempted to replicate these findings with 200 participants (compared with the sample of 42 participants in Cuddy’s research) and while participants who adopted power poses said they felt more powerful, they showed no differences in their testosterone or cortisol levels compared with the low-power pose participants, nor were they more willing to make risky bets. “Using a much larger sample size but similar procedures as Carney et al. did, we failed to confirm an effect of power posing,” the replication team said.

Cuddy and her colleagues responded with an overview of 33 published studies that have shown psychological and physiological effects of power posing. But in a paper that’s forthcoming in Psychological Science Joseph Simmons and Uri Simonsohn at the University of Pennsylvania have conducted a statistical analysis on these 33 published studies that they say shows “the existing evidence is too weak to justify a search for moderators or to advocate for people to engage in power posing to better their lives.”

A replication crisis

The “power posing will make you bolder” finding is not the only well-known one in psychology that researchers are having trouble replicating. Two years ago, an international team of 270 scientists attempted to replicate 100 studies published in three major psychology journals in 2008. They succeeded with fewer than half of the studies.

As Jarrett points out, “this replication problem doesn’t just apply to famous findings, nor does it only affect psychological science.” And it doesn’t mean that the original findings were wrong, or that psychological research is a hopeless pursuit.

“There can be relatively mundane reasons behind failed replications, such as methodological differences from the original or cultural changes since the original was conducted,” Jarrett writes.

But it’s important, he argues, for people to be aware of “some of the most famous findings that have proven tricky to repeat.” He then proceeds to give us nine more examples, including these two: 

  • Smiling will make you feel happier

We know that feeling happy makes us smile, but can smiling make us happy? In 1988, researchers reported that participants found cartoons funnier when they held a pen between their teeth, forcing them to smile, as compared with when they held a pen between their lips, forcing them to pout. The finding appeared to be consistent with the facial-feedback hypothesis – the idea that our facial expression doesn’t just reflect our feelings but also affects them – and according to Google Scholar it has been cited nearly 1500 times.

However, a replication attempt published this Summer by 17 independent labs and involving nearly two thousand participants found overall no effect of mouth position on people’s rating of the funniness of cartoons. The replication team said their replication failure was “statistically compelling”. The lead author of the 1988 study, Fritz Strack, said he was surprised by the null result and he highlighted a number of problems with the replication attempt, including the fact the participants were filmed during the study, which may have made them self-conscious and affected their emotions.

  • Cleaning your hands will wash away your guilt

“Out, damned spot!” cries a guilt-ridden Lady Macbeth, obsessively washing her hands in the hope it will clear her conscience. Many research findings have demonstrated that the link between moral purity and physical cleanliness is more than metaphorical, and that when we’re feeling guilty we’re motivated to clean ourselves physically.

In one of the earliest examples of the “Macbeth Effect“, Chen-Bo Zhong and Katie Liljenquist asked participants to hand-copy an account of either an ethical or an unethical deed (helping or sabotaging a work colleague, respectively), and then asked them to rate the desirability of various products. Those who’d written about an unethical deed rated hygiene-related products more highly, such as soap and toothpaste.

But in 2013, when researchers at the University of Oxford tried three times to replicate this effect with participants from the UK, USA and India, they failed on each occasion. Brian Earp and his colleagues did not claim that there is no link between physical and moral purity, nor did they dismiss the existence of a Macbeth Effect. But they said their replication failures call for a “careful reassessment of the evidence for a real-life ‘Macbeth Effect’ within the realm of moral psychology.” The Oxford University research complemented another study from 2011 that failed to replicate more of Zhong and Liljenquist’s findings on the Macbeth Effect, including the idea that physical cleaning reduces guilt and as a result makes people less likely to be altruistic.

Other famous findings that made Jarrett’s list are:

  • Self-control is a limited resource
  • Revising after your exams can improve your earlier performance
  • Exposure to words pertaining to aging will make you walk more slowly
  • Babies are born with the power to imitate
  • Big brother eyes make us behave more honestly
  • Sniffing the “cuddle hormone” will make you more trusting
  • Being reminded of money makes us selfish

FMI:  You can read about all of these difficult-to-replicate findings in his article at BPS Research Digest, which is published by the British Psychological Society.

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Comments (3)

  1. Submitted by Susan Lesch on 09/21/2016 - 10:15 am.

    John Ioannidis

    This gentleman has earned more exposure: “Why Most Published Research Findings Are False” by John P. A. Ioannidis

  2. Submitted by Paul Udstrand on 09/22/2016 - 08:34 am.

    Typical unfortunately

    For one thing, I suspect (but don’t have the data to prove) that the more “views” a Ted Talk gets the more ridiculous the information that talk is presenting is. Ted Talks are the penultimate product of late 20th century intellectual banality, it’s little more than celebrity pretending to be expertise… for a price. Even when knowledgeable people “talk” their presentations are reduced to little more than soundbites in order to accommodate the audience. The idea that soundbites can be “deep” thoughts is a popular late 20th century delusion that continues to plague our attempts at rational discourse.

    As for this particular study, of course it was “popular”, but it’s exactly the kind of mind candy that no one should ever take seriously in the first place. Unfortunately too many “science” reporters simply scan press releases for entertaining abstracts that don’t seriously challenge their audiences intellect. This pretends that a single study represents some kind of scientific discovery when in fact it’s only the first step. We end up with “science” writers and “sections” in the media that actually contribute to scientific illiteracy.

    Of course the obvious problem with this “study” is that “feeling” more powerful is a dubious social objective in the first place. Adopting a confrontation stance in many situations can likely as not backfire on the poser. In normal human interactions attempts to intimidate people you interact with will not produce favorable outcomes depending on the relevant power relationships. It’s not just about how YOU “feel”. Egocentricity is rarely the proper antidote for poor self esteem.

  3. Submitted by Jim Million on 09/22/2016 - 09:54 am.

    “difficult-to-replicate findings”

    Great “bottom up” piece, Susan! Did you slyly intend this layout?

    I certainly agree that “Self-control is a limited resource,” and also truly wish someone had told me about the “cuddle hormone” sometime soon after kindergarten. Is there, by chance, a “geezer strength” formulation available somewhere?

    I always have wished we’d had a sister among three brothers, but now not so sure. I’m left wondering what “Big sister eyes” might have done to us. Would they have increased or decreased our fraternal need for more “cuddle hormone”?

    This I do know from personal experience: Being taller than most others is not critical to personal influence. [Then, again, another 3″ would have been quite useful sometimes.]

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