Strike a Pose:
The Power of Posture
By Andrew Fischer
Photographed by Arno Frugier
Power is difficult to define, but you know it when you see it: in the triumph of a runner who crosses the finish line in first place or the player who scores the game-winning goal, in the broad stance of the chief executive who presides over her boardroom like the captain of a ship, in the default postures of Wonder Woman and Superman, even in a peacock’s strategic display of iridescent plumage.
“Expansive, open body language is closely tied to dominance across the animal kingdom,” explains social psychologist Amy Cuddy, the Harvard Business School professor whose 2012 TED Talk on how non-verbal behavior influences people has influenced millions worldwide. “When we feel powerful, we make ourselves bigger.” In this way, the mind changes the body, but does it work in reverse? Can the body change the mind? Yes, according to Cuddy, and it’s as easy as striking a pose.
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The link between expansiveness and power is primitive, explains Cuddy in her new book, Presence: Bringing Your Boldest Self to Your Biggest Challenges (Little, Brown). Positions of power are recognizable and consistent across dozens of cultures. Even congenitally blind people—a kind of nature/nurture control group for those who study body language—have been shown to exhibit these non-verbal behaviors. “We stretch out. We lift our chins and pull our shoulders back. We puff up our chests. Spread our feet apart. Raise our arms,” notes Cuddy. This posture, with its bold occupation of space, communicates status and power, fleeting as they may be.
Slouching or slumping sends the opposite signals. It is the posture of defensiveness and vulnerability. “When we feel powerless or subordinate, we constrict our posture, tightening, wrapping, and making ourselves smaller,” explains Cuddy, running down a checklist that amounts to fleeing to the fetal position: limbs touching torso, chest caved inward, shoulders slumped, head lowered, posture slouched. Gestures become smaller and speech takes on a clipped or rushed cadence, often at a higher pitch. “Powerlessness even inhibits our facial expressions, evidenced through constricted facial muscles, such as lip presses.”
Cuddy’s research strikes a chord not only in calling attention to the body language of power and powerlessness but in demonstrating that the connection between mind and body goes both ways. In other words, you can fake it ‘til you make it—or, as she prefers, “fake it ‘til you become it.” Posture can be a cause as well as an effect. “The way you carry yourself is a source of personal power,” writes Cuddy. “It’s the key that allows you to unlock yourself—your abilities, your creativity, your courage, and even your generosity.”
In studying the effects of posture, Cuddy and colleagues found that adopting expansive, open postures—“power poses” such as standing with hands on hips or reclining in a chair with legs extended and feet up—caused not only psychological and behavioral changes but also alterations in the subjects’ physiological states, including hormone levels. “Carrying yourself in a powerful way directs your feelings, thoughts, behaviors, and body to feel powerful and be present (and even perform better) in situations from the mundane to the most challenging,” she notes.
Posture not only shapes the way we feel, it also shapes the way we think about ourselves—from our self-descriptions to the certainty and comfort with which we hold them.Amy Cuddy
When it comes to posture, even the smallest adjustments can add up to big changes. Start by simply sitting up straight and then consider your surroundings. “Set up your workspace so that you have to reach a little bit. Put pictures of your family or of people that you love high up on the wall so that you have to look up,” suggests Cuddy. Prepare for the day’s challenges by power posing first thing in the morning. And seek to avoid the ubiquitous smartphone slump—or at least make it work to your advantage. “Set a reminder every hour to check your posture,” she advises. “It’s like the simplest possible wearable device.”
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