Power Posing: An Easy Confidence Boost for the Modern Woman

If you’re anything like me, the following scene may sound familiar: You’ve got 5 minutes before your big interview and an incurable case of the clammy-hand jitters. You’re nervous about impressing your potential boss, not to mention keeping your foot from tapping on the floor. What do you do?

The answer may be easier than you think.

Strike a pose

New psychology research suggests that how we stand and sit has a real impact on how we feel. In a pioneering experiment by Columbia University and Harvard Business School psychologists Dana Carney, Amy Cuddy and Andy Yap, people who were asked to sit and stand in open, expansive postures for only 3 minutes showed not only a psychological increase in feelings of power and willingness to take risks, but an actual physiological change in hormones; these individuals showed significant increases in testosterone, the hormone linked to dominance, and decreases in cortisol, the hormone linked to stress.

 

HIGH-POWER

SEATED POSE

LOW-POWER SEATED POSE

HIGH-POWER STANDING POSE

LOW-POWER STANDING POSE

 

The Importance of Nonverbal Behavior

The psychology literature tells us that nonverbal behavior – specifically body posture – is closely linked to concepts like power and dominance. In terms of body posture itself, research shows that high-power individuals are more likely to assume open postures with outstretched limbs, whereas low-power individuals are more likely to assume closed postures with retracted limbs and collapsed torsos. Research also indicates that high-power individuals use significantly more hand gestures than low-power individuals, and perhaps not surprisingly, men engage in high-power postures much more frequently than women. Together, this research tells us that the degree of power we each possess predicts how we hold ourselves and how we appear – in other words, that power predicts posture.

Recent research, however, shows that the reverse may be true as well – that posture can in fact predict power. This idea is part of what psychologists call embodiment, or the idea that certain body positions, movements or facial expressions can significantly affect the way we think and feel. One of the earliest experiments on embodiment was by German psychologists Fritz Strack, Leonard Martin, and Norbert Schwarz, who showed that simply holding a pencil horizontally between your teeth and thus activating the facial muscles you use when you smile can actually make you feel happier. Another study by John Riskind and Carolyn Gotay showed that posture affects your reaction to bad news – that you feel more helpless and depressed if you receive bad news when you are slouching than if you are sitting upright. In this way, posture and other nonverbal behaviors can activate important biological feedback mechanisms.

Power Posing for Women

For my senior thesis, I explored the research presented by Carney and colleagues through a gendered lens. After going through a few rounds of nerve-wracking interviews last fall, I got to thinking – there has to be a way that women can make themselves feel more confident before stressful events like these. So, I sought to determine whether power posing could be tailored to women and used as a tool to help us feel more powerful. Taking a cue from Carney and colleagues’ study, I ran an experiment in which I asked female participants to assume either a high-power seated pose or low-power seated pose for 3 minutes (a pilot study showed that standing poses were not resonating with women; seated poses are pictured above). Participants were then asked to complete a blackjack gambling task to measure their propensity towards risk, which research shows is linked to feelings of power, and then answer questions about their current feelings of focus and self-confidence. Results confirmed that women who were asked to assume the high-power pose did indeed report greater propensity towards risk on the gambling task than women in the low-power condition – 83.33% of high-power women took the risk, compared to only 57.14% of low-power women (see chart). In terms of mood, women in the high-power condition also reported enhanced focus (specifically, clearheadedness and alertness), as well as increased self-confidence and overall positivity of mood.

The Takeaway

The next time you’re standing outside an interviewer’s office, instead of pacing back and forth, grab a seat and stretch out your arms. If you’re a little shy, find a quiet corner or empty women’s lounge and pose away. But don’t stop there – the possibilities of power posing are endless. Some ways you can use the technique:

  • Try it before your next PowerPoint presentation, your next exam, or even before a meeting or a class.
  • Don’t be afraid to keep posing once you take your seat – something as subtle as sitting up straight or slinging your arm over your chair will help you keep feeling powerful.
  • If you are doing a presentation, try placing your hands on your hips instead of crossing them in front of you, and avoid swaying or crossing your legs while you stand.
  • Be forewarned: once you start posing to gain confidence, you won’t want to stop!

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Madeleine Bernstein is a recent graduate of Princeton with a degree in Psychology and Women’s Studies. She is an avid researcher for the university and boasts the co-founding and leadership of Princetons on-campus Opera Company.