Ever heard the phrase “it’s not what she said, it’s how she said it” or been given the advice to “fake it ‘til you make it?” Body language – or “nonverbals,” according to social scientists – affect(s) how we interact with each other and view others in conversation, accounting for roughly 55% of how a communicator is interpreted.2 “What you do speaks so loud that I cannot hear what you say,” said Emerson,1 and “stand up straight” is in the lexicon of well-intentioned mothers everywhere. Social psychologist Amy Cuddy wanted to know if our body language informs not only how we view each other, but how we think and feel about ourselves. In her Ted Talk she analyzes the power dynamics of nonverbal expression and reveals that ultimately, as the title of her talk states, your body language shapes who you are.3
Cuddy notes that powerful and powerless people exhibit differences in behavior and physiology: powerful people are typically confident, assertive, and risk averse, and have higher testosterone levels and lower cortisol levels than their more feeble counterparts.3 This means that power isn’t just about how dominant you are, but also how you interpret and react to stress.
Cuddy wanted to see whether assuming a physical stance natural to powerful people could in fact create these hormonal changes in the brain and instigate feelings of power. She and her research team asked participants to take on either a high power pose (i.e. leaning back, taking up space, arms stretched out), or a low power pose (arms and legs crossed, folded up, hunched over) for two minutes. Afterwards, saliva samples showed a 20% increase in testosterone levels in the high power posers, and a 10% decrease in the low power ones, as well as a 20% decrease in cortisol levels for high power folks, and a 15% increase for the lower power. So just two minutes of physical alterations led to either feeling more assertive, confident and comfortable, or becoming more stress-reactive and shut down.3
Outside of the lab, this is most applicable in situations of social judgment where you’re being evaluated, such as giving a pitch or going to a job interview. For two minutes right before a stressful interview, participants were again asked to assume either high or low power poses. Interviewers across the board chose the high power posers for the job. It wasn’t the content of their interviews that made the power posing group appear to be more qualified, but the presence they brought with them: they were seen as “confident, passionate, enthusiastic, authentic, captivating and comfortable.”3
Cuddy urges us to test this simple science and not just fake it ‘til you make it, but fake it ‘til you become it. Before you go into the next stressful, evaluative situation, take two minutes power posing (in the elevator or in your office); two minutes to configure your brain to cope the best it can in that situation. She says tiny tweaks can lead to big changes, and that doing this frequently enough will “significantly change the way your life unfolds” until you have a moment where you realize you’re not faking it anymore, but that you have become it.3
1. Goodreads. Ralph Waldo Emerson quotes, 2013. Available from: http://www.goodreads.com/quotes/11079-what-you-do-speaks-so-loudly-that-i-cannot-hear. Accessed September 2013
2. Mehrabian A. “Silent Messages” – A Wealth of Information about Nonverbal Communication (Body Language), 1981. Available from: http://www.kaaj.com/psych/smorder.html. Accessed September 2013
3. Ted ideas worth spreading. Amy Cuddy: Your body language shapes who you are, 2012. Available from: http://www.ted.com/talks/amy_cuddy_your_body_language_shapes_who_you_are.html. Accessed September 2013