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In debates, watch for signs of warmth: Q&A with Amy Cuddy

Posted by: Ben Lillie

At TEDGlobal 2012, Amy Cuddy gave a talk about the remarkable power of our posture to affect our mental state: Strike a powerful pose (in private) before a job interview, and your performance will improve. 

With the US election coming up, we asked Cuddy, an expert on nonverbal communication, for her insights into political posturing — and what to look for in the upcoming presidential debates.

We’re right in the middle of politics season. I presume we can be looking for a lot of this kind of signaling. As an observer, what should we be looking for?

Stepping back from this specific research on power posing, more broadly what I study is how people judge and communicate both power/competence and warmth/trustworthiness. These are the two primary dimensions along which people evaluate each other — we ask: do I like this person (warmth/trustworthiness)? And do I respect this person (power/competence)? We’re constantly — although usually unintentionally — sending nonverbal signals that people use to judge how warm or powerful we are, and we’re also constantly judging how warm and powerful they are based on their nonverbal signals. So that’s what I’m looking for when I’m watching politicians: what their body language says — or is trying to say — about their power and their warmth.

I don’t see a lot of politicians in the national spotlight who are really struggling to communicate power, mostly because they focus so obsessively on appearing the strongest, the most alpha. But if you look for power poses, you’ll start noticing lots of them, especially in the debates. I have to admit, watching for them is a sort of guilty pleasure. Pay attention to how expansive the candidates’ postures are: Are they using wide, open, strong, defined gestures? Are they standing with their feet apart? Do they have their hands resting on the outsides of the podium, to spread out a bit more? Puffing out their chests a bit? Racing to be the first one to reach out and initiate the handshake? And how much space are they taking up? Are they trying to occupy each other’s space, by doing something like grabbing their opponent’s arm during the handshake? Or doing even more aggressive things, like walking toward their opponent and really getting up in their space, LBJ-style? It’s also interesting to track the nonverbals throughout the debate — is the stronger debater becoming even more expansive and the weaker debater beginning to close up a bit, even in subtle ways, like how much they lift or lower their chin?

But politicians can definitely make the mistake of coming across as too dominant, too alpha. There’s a good clip from the 2004 Australian Federal Election campaign. It was another handshake video. Mark Latham shakes the hand of his opponent’s — prime minister John Howard – really aggressively. Latham grabs Howard’s hand and yanks Howard toward him, almost to the point where their faces are touching, and staring him right in the eyes. A lot of Australians found it offensive; they didn’t like it at all — it just reinforced the image some people already had of Latham as a bit of a bully. It was an ultra-alpha move, and a lot of experts feel it severely damaged his image. So it’s a great example of too much dominance, too much power. The interaction — the handshake — is only about 4 seconds long; but, wow, is it a 4-second power pose that totally backfired.

Politicians are very experienced — maybe too experienced — at using body language to signal power and competence. But what these politicians are much more likely to struggle with, or just neglect to do altogether, is communicate warmth and trustworthiness.

So a lack of warmth can be damaging in a campaign?

Yes, definitely. Let me give you an example.

I wrote a case about a US Congressional candidate who was really having trouble communicating warmth, getting voters to like him and trust him. He wasn’t having trouble projecting competence and power – voters generally respected him and believed he was smart. But his inability to convey warmth was really doing him in. He was really trailing in the polls behind his opponent, who was a 26-year incumbent who was both respected (competence/power) and loved (warmth/trustworthiness) by the voters. So it turned out this newcomer candidate had a few nonverbal habits that were especially problematic. One was that he very, very rarely produced natural smiles, or Duchenne smiles, where the muscles around your eyes contract. (An aside – be kind to your crow’s feet, because they help you build relationships and make friends.) Natural smiles are contagious, almost like yawns: when you see one, it’s hard to resist smiling. And they’re also self-reinforcing: when you smile, your mood actually improves, making it easier to keep smiling. Second, when he did smile, it was when he was criticizing his opponent or his opponent’s party. And so there he’d be, talking about some very negative thing … while smiling. People don’t like that; it comes across as snarky and self-satisfied. Voters were like, “Sure, he’s smart, but I don’t like the guy.” I have to say, he really is a truly nice person – he cared so much about what he was doing – but he just didn’t know how to get that across. His third nonverbal bad habit was that he kept his eyebrows raised nearly all the time – during speeches, when he was meeting people one-on-one … so he looked alarmed and panicked – it’s like writing every email in ALL CAPS – and that makes the audience and the people you’re interacting with anxious and uncomfortable and even a little panicked themselves. When you’re watching someone give a speech or give a pitch and they have their eyebrows raised the whole time, it doesn’t give you a warm fuzzy feeling about the person. If somebody reaches out to shake your hand and their eyebrows are raised like that, it’s also off-putting. He was wise and open to feedback, so he brought in some very good consultants who worked closely to help him change these habits, and he – to everyone’s surprise – ended up coming from behind and winning the election.

Amazing. Why does that work so well?

You must understand the people you’re trying to influence or lead. You must be able to show them that you understand them – and, better yet, that you can relate to them. By doing that, you’re laying the groundwork for trust. And it’s only then that they can really hear you and be open to your ideas. Trust is the conduit for influence; it’s the medium through which ideas travel. If they don’t trust you, your ideas are just dead in the water. If they trust you, they’re open and they can hear what you’re offering. Having the best idea is worth nothing if people don’t trust you.

It’s not uncommon for people to overvalue the importance of demonstrating their competence and power, often at the expense of demonstrating their warmth. I think it’s especially common for people striving for leadership positions – in politics, business, law, medicine…you name it. Too many people try to be the smartest guy in the room – the alpha – and that’s not actually how you become persuasive or become a good leader. It’s a mistake. People judge trustworthiness before competence. They make inferences of trustworthiness and warmth before competence and power. And the reason is that it answers the question, “Is this person friend or foe?” With a stranger, you first want to know what their intentions are toward you, and then you want to know, can they carry out those intentions? You have to connect with people and build trust before you can influence or lead them.

Women – Hillary Clinton, for example – have faced a kind of treacherous double bind when it comes to being seen as both competent AND warm. Women are much more likely than men to be seen as high on one dimension and low on the other (the sweet, incompetent, fragile, feminine woman vs. the strong, cruel, inhuman, masculine woman who doesn’t have a heart). I do quite a bit of research on this phenomenon, and I could talk for hours to this point. Women in the public eye are really penalized for deviations from what society has prescribed for them – which is usually to be a warm, soft caretaker – and they have to work doubletime to manage that. It’s pretty unfair.

But to come back to this point: you have to build trust before you can lead. I know this may seem to contradict what I say about power posing, but it absolutely doesn’t. It’s really important to separate what you do before the interaction, from what you do during the interaction. You want to feel powerful going in – but that does not equal dominant or alpha. You want to feel that you have the power to bring your full, spirited self to the situation, stripped of the fears and inhibitions that might typically hold you back. I believe this allows you not just to be stronger, but also to be more open and trusting. But nonverbally displaying power during the interaction – now that’s another thing with different prescriptions and outcomes. I’m definitely not an advocate, as I think I’ve made clear by now, of going in and power-posing in front of people in order to intimidate them or something. Yes, use strong, open nonverbals: Don’t slouch or make yourself small, and be as big as you can comfortably be. But don’t use alpha cowboy moves, like sitting with legs apart and your arm draped over the back of the chair next to you. That can directly undermine the trust you need to build.

So I think it’s more interesting, when watching politicians, to look for these warmth and trustworthiness nonverbals. Not that the power poses aren’t entertaining, because they definitely are. But I’d have to argue that warmth is actually more important. Look for natural smiles, for body language that is inviting, positive, and that signals interest in the other person or people. Even a gentle touch – one that’s appropriate, of course – like when one candidate gently touches the other on the shoulder.  But warm, natural smiles are hugely important. A nice, relatively recent example is watching Obama when he sings the first little bit of the Al Green song “Let’s Stay Together.” Not only does he have a surprisingly good voice, but when I watch people watch him break into that big smile, I watch them melt – I watch them warm up as they’re watching him. It’s contagious and hard to avoid. Obama has become pretty good nonverbally on both dimensions, although I think his ability to convey warmth has gotten much better as he’s become more relaxed. You see more of those natural smiles. He comes across as strong without seeming like an over-aggressive alpha. And I think he knows when it’s time to be really powerful nonverbally, and when it’s time to play it down a little bit.

Is there something people can do to convey warmth?

Yes, I think so. I sometimes work with a communications and media training firm called KNP Communications. It’s nice to bring the research to the practitioners; I learn a lot watching how they put it into practice, and I know they like to be on top of what’s happening on the research front. The KNP guys talk a lot about “inside-out vs. outside-in” nonverbals. Their approach is grounded in both science and method acting.

A lot of politicians, not surprisingly, hire consultants to help them with their nonverbals, presence, generally how they come across. The classic, now dated way consultants would deal with these issues was to tell politicians, “When you say this word I want you to move your hand like this.” And that’s the outside-in approach, where you try to change the nonverbal behavior from the outside, like it’s all perfectly choreographed. It’s really, really hard to do that and have it come across as natural. You can’t, in that very artificial way, synchronize across the nonverbal channels – you’ve got your tone of voice, what your face is doing, what your eyes are doing, what your hands are doing, what your lower body’s doing. If you’re told to make a very defined gesture at a scripted time, it looks really artificial, and people – voters, audience members – at some visceral level recognize that and find it a bit repulsive.

Using an inside-out approach really gets you into the right frame of mind. It’s more like preparatory power posing: you’re configuring your brain and body to smoothly and naturally perform well. So if you’re struggling to produce real smiles, like the Congressional candidate who wasn’t connecting with voters was, you need to figure out what you’re doing when you are producing natural smiles – because almost everyone does, at some times, produce natural smiles. For the Congressional candidate, it was when he talked about his son. So when KNP worked with him, they had him, in the next few speeches, talk about his son. He’d say, “Let me tell you about my son, Michael [a pseudonym].” And his face just authentically went into this natural smile, and everyone would smile, and he’d smile.

People send me political clips all the time because there’s just so much great stuff out there. But usually what they are sending me are examples of people who look uncomfortably artificial, versus really natural.

A couple of examples. There’s a John McCain clip, it’s really incredible, where he’s saying that he’s going to “follow Osama Bin Laden to the gates of hell.” And then at the very end of this aggressive, fierce statement, he breaks into this painfully fake smile. There he is, so angrily and forcefully talking about how he’s going to follow someone to the gates of hell … and smiling. McCain’s smiles were often poorly timed, almost random, and artificial. You can tell that someone, maybe a coach, maybe an advisor, said, “You need to smile more, Senator.” And it’s as if whenever he paused, he’d remember: “must smile more, must smile more,” but it was often at the most inopportune times. It looks terribly awkward, and it makes people really uncomfortable.

You can look at almost anything from John Kerry during his run for the presidency. Here’s this guy who really knew his stuff – very competent – but he absolutely could not connect with voters. As one of my practitioner- collaborators described him, “He learned oration at his father’s knee, pre-Oprah. He didn’t learn how to connect with voters. It was as if he could see his words chiseled in stone as they were coming out of his mouth.” I often show Kerry clips when I’m teaching, and the reaction is pretty universal – regardless of party membership or culture of origin – people see him as competent, but stiff, robotic, and unable to connect with voters. Same for Al Gore while he was running for President. He often looked wooden and overscripted, not able to pull off the bad choreography, and so focused on the content of his ideas that he forgot all about connecting.

Being overscripted can make you look both powerless and untrustworthy. The perceived powerlessness comes from the sense that you don’t have enough confidence in what you’re saying to go out there and say it. Being a comfortable public speaker, which involves easily being able to go off-script, strongly signals competence. And if you over-rely on a script, who knows whose ideas you’re even reciting? Of course all politicians use speechwriters, but voters want to feel that the ideas are yours, and that you are speaking with conviction. Being overscriped makes people trust you less, because you come across as disingenuous and distant. They want to feel like you’re speaking to them, not to a camera or a focus group; they want you to connect with them. If you can’t do that, your audience doesn’t feel understood, and if they don’t think you understand them, how can they trust you?

That’s amazing. In the TEDTalk, a lot of it was about how to strike a power pose. Is there something similar you can do with warmth?

As with power posing, I think it’s great to get yourself into a warm and trusting state of mind before you go into an interaction. How do you do that? The strategy that is most similar to preparatory power posing is to force yourself to smile by holding a pen or pencil horizontally between your teeth.  It actually forces the contraction of the muscles around both the mouth and the eyes. And if you do that, as I mentioned earlier, it improves your mood. Social psychologists call this facial feedback; I’d say power posing is postural feedback, and both are demonstrations of how nonverbals actually change our feelings. Facial feedback, which is sort of the parallel to the postural feedback you get from power posing, was the first real evidence that not only do nonverbals reflect our feelings, but nonverbals also change our feelings.

Anyway, things to make you warm: I think it really is about paying attention to your own nonverbals, even if that means watching video of yourself, thinking about, “What are the moments when I’m producing these natural smiles?” Basically, you’re trying to integrate your personal and your professional lives. You’re find the stimuli in your personal life that make you feel positive and trusting, and trying to find a way to import them into your professional interactions. My practitioner-collaborator friend refers to these things as “backyard barbeque behaviors,” and he helps his clients identify these things.

This may sound silly, but engaging in chitchat or small talk with someone you’re about to negotiate with has powerful effects on the outcomes of the negotiation. It establishes that sense of mutual understanding and trust that I was talking about earlier. Ask people where they’re from, talk about kids, sports teams, the city you’re in, things like that, before the interaction formally begins. A few minutes of chitchat before a negotiation improve your negotiation outcome. I’m not making this up – there’s sound experimental research that has shown this. Just chitchatting. Even in online/email negotiations, things like mimicking the emoticons used by the other party – at the right times – can improve your outcome. So it’s really that any effort you make to truly connect with the person that you are having a transaction or an interaction with is likely to lead to a more positive outcome for everybody, and to make you more persuasive.

And, of course, and this isn’t new, but just thinking about the things that make you feel the most relaxed and happy – your family, special places or memories, things you’re looking forward to, positive interactions you’ve had with people, news stories about normal people doing heroic things, spending time with your dog or cat – all of those things should help configure your brain in ways that will allow you to go into an interaction feeling more warm and trusting and positive.

A couple more questions about the talk: You say you’re supposed to hold a pose for 2 minutes. Where does that number come from?

We’ve tested between 1 and 7 minutes, and we get effects. We get the same effects for one – I think we’ve done 1, 2, 5 and 7 minutes. One minute seems to  actually be enough. I think you’re more likely to find a point where the effect diminishes by holding it for too long – shorter is probably better. But I don’t yet know what the optimal length of time is.

How much of posing is innate and how much is learned?

This is one of those tricky questions for psychologists, because a lot of people assume that if something is “wired in the brain” it means it’s innate, or hardwired in the brain. But the unique ways in which our brains are wired are the products of both our nature and our experiences – and our brains are constantly rewiring. That said, I think some of the strongest evidence that power poses are at least partly hardwired or innate is work by Jessica Tracy, a social psychologist at the University of British Columbia. She studies how people nonverbally display pride, which is essentially the nonverbal expression of feeling powerful after experiencing a big win or success. The pride display is that iconic Olympic pose that we all can easily imagine: the victor crosses the finish line and raises his or her arms in a V-shape, and lifts the chin. Tracy finds not only that this display of pride is universal across cultures, but also that congenitally blind people nonverbally display pride the exact same way when they win a competition, even though they’ve never actually seen a person do it. So that certainly, to me, suggests that power posing is at least partly innate. Add to that the fact that power posing is pervasive throughout the animal kingdom – so many other animals expand and make themselves bigger to signal dominance or status or power, from nonhuman primates, to cats, to cobras, to swans. And that individuals with higher testosterone and lower cortisol are more likely to instinctively adopt these powerful postures. Those findings also suggest that power posing has an innate component.

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