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Is ‘power posing’ back?

The recent report is unlikely to end the controversy surrounding power posing, but the results do seem to support earlier findings regarding the effect it has on how people feel about themselves.

Actress Gal Gadot, who plays Wonder Woman, posing during a photocall to promote the movie "Batman v Superman: Dawn Of Justice" in 2016.
REUTERS/Henry Romero

In 2010, Harvard sociologist Amy Cuddy reported that standing for just one minute in a “high-power” pose — particularly the hands-on-hip “Superman stance” — was associated with changes in hormone levels (higher testosterone, lower cortisol) and an increased tolerance for risk-taking.

Cuddy went on to present a hugely popular TED talk on the topic, followed by a best-selling book (“Presence”).

But other researchers weren’t able to replicate her findings. Then, in 2017, the authors of a review of 33 published studies on the topic concluded that the existing evidence was too weak to “advocate for people to engage in power position to better their lives.” 

Cuddy quickly became the “poster girl” for methodological problems in psychology research. 

A deeper dive into the data

Well, if you haven’t gotten rid of your Superman — or Wonder Woman — cape, you may want to bring it down from the attic again.

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Cuddy and her colleagues have recently published their own review — a meta-analysis — of the existing studies. In addition to including 21 studies to the 33 in the earlier review, their analysis also examined the effect of posture on how people feel, something not studied in the 2017 review.

The findings, published this month in the journal Psychological Science, are unlikely to end the controversy surrounding power posing’s effects on changing people’s behavior and making them more willing to take risks. But the results do seem to support Cuddy’s earlier findings regarding the effect that power posing has on how people feel about themselves.

In an article for BPS Digest, a website run by the British Psychological Society, science reporter Emma Young summarizes what the new meta-analysis found:

While Cuddy appears to be softening her claims about what power-posing can achieve, she and her colleagues argue that their new analysis shows that there is strong evidence that posture affects emotions in particular, and that power-posing is likely to have a meaningful impact on people, and should not be discounted. …

This new analysis provides clear evidence, Cuddy’s team argues, that people who adopt open, expansive, “power” poses do feel more powerful. And “feeling powerful is an intrinsically consequential, theoretically important, fundamental outcome,” they write. “We believe that even transient feelings of power can have long-lasting consequences for people’s lives.”

They say their new work also provides “very strong” evidence that expansive vs. contractive (such as self-hugging) postures have other emotion-related effects, including affecting participants’ recall of positive vs. negative memories, their self-evaluations, their specific emotional state, and their ability to recover from a negative mood. 

More research to follow

And what does the meta-analysis say about power posing’s influence on actual behavior? Writes Young: 

Claims that power posing can change the way people behave — affecting their willingness to take risks or how they perform in a job interview, for example — are not supported by the new analysis. … However, Cuddy and her colleagues argue that “there is a need for experimental tests of incremental or longitudinal effects of adopting expansive postures over time on various outcomes,” adding that “Right now, we are not aware of any such research.” 

Undoubtedly, such research will be forthcoming. In the meantime, take up the power pose, if you feel it works for you. As Wonder Woman once said, “It’s about what you believe.”

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FMI: You can read the meta-analysis in full on Psychological Science’s website. You’ll find Young’s summary of the research at the BPS Research Digest website.