What we tell ourselves with our body language: Amy Cuddy at TEDGlobal 2012

Posted by:

Amy Cuddy

Snap judgements of others

Amy Cuddy starts by asking us to pay attention to what we’re doing with our bodies. Are our shoulders hunched? Are we trying to not bump into the person next to us? Are we sprawled out?

“We’re fascinated with body language,” she says. We dissect and analyze and judge people, and in particular we scrutinize public leaders. A handshake, or lack of one, can have us talking for weeks. (Such as a remarkable moment with Gordon Brown and Barak Obama.)

When we scrutinize ourselves, we think about how other people are judging us. We’re not wrong to do so. “We make sweeping judgments and inferences from body language,” and those judgment can predict enormously important life outcomes, “Like who we hire or promote, or who we ask out on a date.”

Constant judgements of ourselves

But, says Cuddy, there is another half that we ignore, another audience. Ourselves. Does our own body language affect how we think of ourselves?

She studies power and dominance and starts by showing us a picture of primates. They expand, they take up space and occupy the space of other animals to show dominance.

Amy Cuddy

What do humans do? The same thing. They stretch out. And, when they feel powerless, both humans and primates do the opposite. This is universal across cultures and species.

In business schools in the US, such as Harvard where Cuddy teaches, half your grade is based on how much you participate — and she’s found that body language is related to how much students participate, and interestingly, she’s noticed that it’s related to how the students sit. Men are more likely to sprawl out, and to participate, to adopt high-power poses. This makes sense, socially, since, sadly, “Women feel chronically less powerful than men.” But it is a problem that the schools worry about, since it often means the women are getting lower grades.

So she and her collaborator asked: Could people fake power, and have that lead them to feel more powerful? Your mind changes your body, is the reverse true? Could you adopt a powerful pose, and through that feel more powerful? After all, role changes can change physiology. When an alpha primate departs, another rises. Researchers have found that within days his testosterone goes up and his cortisol goes down.

Faking it for two minutes

Cuddy ran an experiment in which people were directed to pose in high-power and low-power poses, assigned randomly, for two minutes. They’re then given the opportunity to gamble — since people in high status are found to be more risk-tolerant (and less responsive to stress). They found that 86% who posed in the high-power position would gamble, versus 60% for low — a significant difference. There were also physiological changes — participants also had about an 8% increase in testosterone (high), or 10% decrease (low). There was a similar, but reversed, pattern for cortisol. That’s significant because testosterone is associated with risk tolerance, and cortisol with stress response.

So nonverbals can change how we think about ourselves, but can this apply outside of the lab? They tested people in job interviews. (Cuddy hastens to say, they are not saying people should sit differently in job interviews, but while you’re in the waiting room, power pose away.) The researchers told people to give a speech after sitting in high or low poses. The judges, who had no idea what position the subjects took, or even what the test was about, evaluated the high-position posers much better.

Amy Cuddy

Making it for life

When she tells people about these results, a lot of them say that it doesn’t feel natural to pose your way to confidence — that it’s just fakery.

Cuddy takes a moment to tell an extraordinary story of feeling powerless herself. When she was 19, she was in a terrible car accident that landed her in a rehab ward and dropped her IQ by two standard deviations. She fought back, and made it to Princeton, but couldn’t shake the feeling that, somehow, she was not supposed to be there. Freaking out about giving a talk, she wrote to her adviser saying she couldn’t do it and was quitting. Her adviser wrote back and said, “No. You know what you’re going to do? You’re going to give that talk, and you’re going to give every talk you’re invited to give. And you’re going to fake it until you make it.”

Years later, teaching at Harvard, a shy student who never spoke in class admitted the same fear to her. And Cuddy realized two things. First, that she didn’t feel like that anymore. She wasn’t faking; she had become the confident speaker, the person who belonged. Second, that she understood exactly what the student was feeling. So she gave her the same speech. And the next day, the student finally spoke up — and was brilliant.

Says Cuddy, “It’s not fake it till you make it, it’s fake it till you become it.”

She ends her talk with an extraordinary request: Once you know this information about how easy it is to feel powerful — share it. Because it’s the people without power who aren’t in a position to learn these techniques. And empowering someone who truly needs that power could change a life.

Photos: James Duncan Davidson