Power Poses — Just a Placebo?

Lynda Carter played Wonder Woman from 1975 to 1979. ABC Photo Archives/ABC via Getty Images
Lynda Carter played Wonder Woman from 1975 to 1979. ABC Photo Archives/ABC via Getty Images

Stand with your legs shoulder-width apart. Hands on hips. Chest out. And chin tilted up. There you go; you're striking the high-power pose nicknamed The Wonder Woman. Be bold!

If you haven't channeled your inner Wonder Woman since childhood, it may seem silly, but according to the research team of Amy Cuddy, a social psychologist at Harvard Business School, and co-authors Dana Carney and Andy Yap of Columbia University, holding high-power poses for just two minutes can boost your confidence — and, in doing so, put you on a life-changing course.

Building on the knowledge that our body language affects how others feel about us, in 2010 Cuddy and team published findings on the if and how our nonverbal communications also influence our own thoughts and feelings about ourselves. For instance, if we imitate certain postures associated with confidence and high self-esteem, can we convince ourselves that we are confident and assertive? Cuddy's short answer: yes.

And this is where the controversy begins.

Psychology, Physiology and Placebo

High-power poses are dominant postures, those that take up space and make you look bigger, and, suggests Cuddy, alter your psychology, your physiology and your behavior. Low-power poses, such as crossing your legs and looking down, suggest just the opposite: smallness, vulnerability.

Cuddy and team found that study participants — 42 men and women — asked to hold high-power poses, such as The Wonder Woman, for two minutes reported feeling more powerful, and as many as 86 percent were more likely to play the odds, a marked increase in risk tolerance, compared to only 60 percent of people in low-power poses.

Power posing, finds Cuddy, gives us more than a self-confidence boost. Power poses, both high and low, trigger a hormonal shift. Increasing levels of testosterone and decreasing levels of cortisol, which make humans feel more powerful and more likely to take financial risks, were found in saliva samples of participants in high-power poses, and vice versa for those holding low-power poses.

"It does appear that even this minimal manipulation can change people's physiology and psychology," Cuddy tells HBS Working Knowledge in a 2010 interview, "and, we hope, lead to very different, meaningful outcomes." Her point? That we can use our bodies to change our minds, our minds to change our behavior, and this can change our overall outcomes.

However, despite Cuddy and team's finding that nonverbal dominant postures led to neuroendocrine, and behavioral changes, and despite Cuddy's TED talk, titled "Your body language shapes who you are," becoming the second most-popular TED talk of all time, no study has yet been able to replicate Cuddy's results or back the claim that these postures make physiological changes in the body.

Fake it until you make it, or just plain fake?

So, is there anything to posing, or is it junk? Well, no. And yes. It depends who you ask — and on your own expectation. Psychologically, it might work. If posing like Wonder Woman makes you feel like a superhero able to take on your day, what's wrong with that? Physiologically, no studies have yet been able to confirm high-power or low-power poses impact the body's testosterone and cortisol levels.

In 2015, for instance, a larger-scale study (between four and five times the size of Cuddy's) conducted by Dr. Eva Ranehill of the Department of Economics at University of Zürich and her research team concluded there is no evidence that using high-power poses will boost confidence and positively change our behaviors. Using nearly the same method that Cuddy used, Ranehill and team found participants with low self-esteem and low self-confidence did NOT report increased feelings of power from holding the pose. In fact, the study's hypothesis that high-power posing would inspire confidence backfired for some participants, who ended up reporting negative feelings about themselves and outcomes.

Furthermore, Ranehill's researchers were unable to find any significant corresponding increase or decrease in risk taking, or a change in testosterone or cortisol levels related to either high-power or low-power postures in collected saliva samples.

In 2013, Joseph Cesario and Melissa McDonald, psychologists at Michigan State University, also were unable to replicate Cuddy's link between high-power postures and changes to our psychology, physiology and behavior. Cesario and McDonald suggest power postures are only powerful when it's situationally relevant. Hold a high-power pose when self-assurance and dominance is expected of you — for instance, just before giving a work presentation — and you may feel a boost of confidence walking into that meeting. Try it with a police officer who's pulled you over for speeding, the authors illustrate, and it likely won't have the same results.

Cesario and McDonald also note cultural differences regarding what is dominant and submissive.

But it's Uri Simonsohn and Joe Simmons, research psychologists at the University of Pennsylvania's Wharton School, who sum it up. After conducting an in-depth analysis of Cuddy and team's findings, along with other studies attempting to corroborate and replicate those findings, Simonsohn and Simmons concluded in May 2015 that the original experiment could not be replicated, and that the available data suggests power postures effect no physiological or behavioral changes nor any indication high-power posing leads to better outcomes in one's life.

Still, despite what current research tells us, if it makes you feel like a superhero, who's to say you should stop your outer Clark Kent from getting reacquainted with your inner Superman?