Does standing with your arms and legs spread wide or putting your feet on your desk give you greater confidence? In 2010, Harvard psychologist Amy Cuddy, along with two co-authors, surprised the world with research that suggested it did. Her TED Talk about the effect of "Power Poses" has been viewed more than 36 million times. Her account of the research and her struggle over her own confidence after a brain-damaging accident were deeply compelling. Her advice to spend a few minutes in a power pose before a public appearance, job interview, or other nerve-wracking event, seemed both sensible and easy to follow. The findings and her TED Talk catapaulted her to fame and she now commands hefty speaking fees.
There's only one problem: It isn't real. Several subsequent studies following rigorous protocols were unable to reproduce the effect Cuddy and her co-authors found. Striking a power pose did not increase testosterone, associated with confidence, or decrease cortisol, associated with stress in these subsequent tests. And late last night, Dana Carney, one of Cuddy's co-authors on the original paper, published a document disavowing that research.
She, Cuddy, and the other researchers weren't being dishonest, she explains, but they made some significant mistakes in their research. Their sample size of 47 was much too small. The people conducting the experiment mostly knew what outcome was being sought, which has a tendency to skew research results. The testosterone increase might have been caused by a different aspect of the experiment--people were given the opportunity to gamble and some of them won, which also increases testosterone.
Considering all that was wrong with the original experiments and the fact that later experiments did not produce the same effect, she writes, "I do not have any faith in the embodied effects of 'power poses.' I do not think the effect is real." She goes on to say that she does not conduct research in this area herself and hasn't in years, nor does she teach the material to her students anymore. And she wants to discourage other researchers from pursuing power poses, which she believes are a dead end.
How should Carney's announcement affect the millions of people (including me) who've been inspired by Cuddy's TED Talk or other speeches? And the many people--and horses--who seem to have been helped by power poses? How do we reconcile the lessons we believed we'd learned with this new discovery that it was all hokum? Here are a few things to keep in mind.
1. Humans are incredibly complex beings.
There is a lot of science these days that tells us how our brain works and what stimuli make it work at its best. It's important to pay attention to this science, but also remember that the workings of the human mind and spirit remain mysterious. So while the changes in hormone levels Cuddy thought she'd discovered apparently weren't real, that may not absolutely mean that power posing is useless.
2. Body language is still incredibly powerful.
Cuddy's big discovery that is now in question is that body language can have a powerful confidence-boosting effect on someone who's deliberately using it. As Carney says, it now seems that discovery wasn't true. But body language still has a deeply powerful effect on the people you're interacting with, and watching other people's body language can give you some insight into what they're really thinking. None of that has changed.
3. You should do whatever works.
If you've ever put on an item of clothing or piece of jewelry because you think it brings you luck or makes you feel confident and in control, then there's no reason to stop using power poses. You won't find scientific evidence that your power tie changes your hormone levels, but one thing we do know about the human brain is that what you believe will work probably will. It's why placebos are so powerful.
So go ahead and keep using power poses if you have been. They certainly won't hurt you. And, even without actually changing your hormone levels, they just might help.