Imagine that someone gives you $200 and the chance to keep the money or gamble it on the flip of a coin. If you win the coin toss, you double your money and get $400. If you lose, you walk away with nothing. Take a moment to decide which option you'd like to select.
One of the most robust findings from behavioral economic research is that losses hurt more than equivalent gains. When given a 50 percent chance of losing $200 and a 50 percent chance of winning $200, most people refuse the offer. The prospect of loss is just too overwhelming. In the example from the first paragraph--which comes from a real study conducted by Dana Carney, then an assistant professor at Columbia University--most participants decided to pocket the $200.
But Carney and her colleagues weren't only interested in replicating a well-known finding, so they incorporated a twist into their study. They sorted participants into four groups. In two of the groups, participants maintained power poses--they either rested their feet on top of a table or placed their hands behind their heads, or they stood behind a desk and leaned forward with both hands palm down on the desk. In the other two groups, participants took on poses that were not associated with dominance and power--they either placed their feet on the floor and, while looking down, put their hands in their laps, or they stood up and crossed their arms and legs.
Carney confirmed her intuition that risk-aversion is, partially, context-dependent. Specifically, she found a link between how participants positioned their bodies physically and how risk averse they were in the gambling task. More than 80 percent of the participants in the first group took the gamble while just 60 percent in the other group did. A subsequent test that measured saliva samples found that those in the power poses had significantly higher levels of testosterone than they did before the test.
These findings mimic others from embodied cognition research, the study of how physical experiences influence how we think and behave. Researchers in this emerging domain debate the findings (Is it possible that if you hold a heavy clipboard, you'll be more likely to judge currencies as more valuable?), but the general insight that the body influences the mind is correct.
They also confirm how important nonverbal communication is. "In some situations requiring power," Carney concludes, "people have the ability to 'fake it 'til they make it.' Over time and in aggregate, these minimal postural changes and their outcomes potentially could improve a person's general health and well-being."