“Fake it ‘till you make it” is an old adage. But recently, I watched a TED talk that completely reshaped my point of view on this idea. Amy Cuddy is an Associate Professor at Harvard University who has done extensive research on non-verbal expressions and dominance, i.e. body language and “power poses”. Her talk struck me as poignant for those of us in business and women in particular.
Amy had several facts to share as a primer for her message. The least surprising of which was that women tend to chronically feel less powerful than men. I reiterate the word feel here as that is what her studies are all about. It is less about the measurement of actual power and more about how powerful we feel and the impact that that feeling has on our lives and how this feeling can change the outcome of our lives.
If you are skeptical about the importance of this theory, you are not alone. But consider that in politics, judgments about candidates’ faces made in only ONE second predicted 70% of the Senate and gubernatorial outcomes in the last election. This doesn’t say much about us as a public but does lend credence to the power pose and non-verbal expression theory.
Amy also shared an experiment that her team ran that I found really interesting. A random sample of people were chosen to, one-by-one, come into a room and make either a pose that they felt represented a powerful person or one that represented someone that lacked power. Power poses in humans are very like those in the animal world. Think about porcupines, blowfish, or even apes when they are trying to express dominance. They puff out and take up as much space as possible. In the same way, those subjects who were asked to strike a pose that made them feel powerful, situated themselves in a way that took up space. As you can imagine, the opposite is true for those feeling less powerful. Here is an example of each:
Prior to striking these poses, which they were asked to hold for 2 full minutes, they were asked to spit into a bowl so that their testosterone and cortisone levels could be measured. After spitting and posing, they were then asked if they would like to gamble. After this they were again asked to spit into a bowl (or some such contraption) for yet another hormone measurement. The hormone measurement is important because Amy’s studies showed that people who are deemed as powerful have higher testosterone levels (which measure power feelings) and lower cortisone levels (measures feelings of stress).
The results of this experiment showed that when the people who struck a power pose were asked to gamble, they said, “yes” 86% of the time versus 60% for those who struck the low power poses. Even more interesting is the fact that the difference in hormone levels between the two pose groups showed that for the high pose group, their testosterone level rose 20% and their cortisone level decreased 10% from the time that they began and ended the experiment. The low power pose group saw a 25% decrease in testosterone and a 15% increase in cortisone levels between the beginning and end. So, it seems that not only does 2 minutes of power posing leave you feeling more powerful but the opposite type of posture is even more detrimental to your feelings of power.
Amy was quick to point out that when we are getting ready to present or go into an interview, we are often hunched over, looking at notes or typing on a mobile device…both low power positions. This likely has an effect on our confidence and feelings of power but more importantly, how others see us.
To prove this latter point, she shared an experiment where people were asked to sit in a 5-minute mock interview with an interviewer who asked really tough questions and gave absolutely no non-verbal feedback. So, no nodding, no smiling, no facial movement at all was given to the interviewees. These people were taped, without audio, and the tape was shown to people who work in HR departments for other companies. These HR reps were asked to say who they would be likely to hire and why. Clearly, the answer could have nothing to do with responses because there was no audio of the question or the response. Unknown to any of the participants, half of the interviewees were asked to strike power poses for 2 minutes, in private, before entering the interview, while the other half was asked to strike non-power poses. The high power pose people were selected every time.
It seems that when people feel more powerful, they are more themselves and come off as more genuine and enthusiastic. It is a natural response. In fact, Amy said that they have measured power responses in blind people who haven’t been conditioned to know and certainly can’t see what a “winning” or high power pose looks like. Yet, all people do the same thing. When we win, we fist pump or we throw our hands up in a “V” formation. Here is an example:
Hussein Bolt reacts the way almost every one does, even blind people, when they win.
So, what is the point of this recap? It has more to do with the story Amy related about herself at the end of the talk. She spoke about how she had grown up as a gifted child, with her identity linked to her intelligence. She suffered a serious head injury from a car crash when she was 19 years old and was told that her IQ had decreased by 2 standard deviations and that she should give up the idea of graduating from college and look to do something else. She didn’t. It took her twice as long to graduate but she did it. She was then given the chance to complete her post-graduate work at Princeton under the tutelage of her mentor. When she was first asked to speak in front of colleagues she nearly quit because she thought that she was a fraud and didn’t deserve to be speaking to others that she deemed more worthy than herself. Her mentor told her to “fake it ‘till she made it”. In fact, she told her to take on as many of those speaking opportunities as she could find. Amy did just that until one day she found that she wasn’t thinking about being a fraud and became the person she was “faking” earlier.
I know I have felt that way before in meetings or interviews but because I have always believed that I can do whatever is put in front of me, I think I have made it in most of those situations. I also know that I am not alone. We all face this feeling of inadequacy at one point or another. But I never thought about the impact that a pose could make on the outcome. So, I for one am posing more, even if in the privacy of a bathroom stall, before big events. I don’t know if anyone will know the difference but I am hoping that I will.:)