Wonder Woman kicks butt. She’s strong, principled, and makes people tell the truth with her golden lasso. When I was a kid, I watched the Linda Carter version on TV. She’s my favorite heroine, as evidenced by the many WW items adorning my home.
When Harvard professor Amy Cuddy made news with her 2012 “power posing” TED Talk, I could relate. The posture she exhorts audiences to adopt—legs in a wide stance, hands on hips, evokes a Wonder Woman vibe. The premise of her talk: that powerful body language can help a person feel more confident and competent. Cuddy followed up her TED Talk with a New York Times best-selling book, Presence: Bringing Your Boldest Self to Your Biggest Challenges, which describes, in part, the benefits of power posing. Cuddy backed up her claims with research conducted with two other colleagues in 2010.
Over the years, several in the academic community have questioned the researchers’ conclusions. Last week, the scrutiny intensified when one of Cuddy’s co-researchers, Berkeley professor Dana Carney, published this note on the University of Berkeley’s faculty site. Carney was blunt: “I do not believe that “power pose” effects are real.” (Carney’s formatting intact.)
For those of us interested in the social sciences in general, and psychology in particular, this is a big deal. Scientists don’t typically denounce their findings with such finality. Cuddy has developed a robust speaking career on topic of “power posing.” As you can see from the photo below, I met Cuddy at a conference a few months ago where she was one of the keynote speakers. I thoroughly enjoyed her presentation; many others I spoke with did too.
So is it all bunk? Should we forget about learning to pose like Wonder Woman to help us feel more confident?
It depends on who you ask. If you dig a bit further into some of the social psychology discussion boards (as I did), you’ll find mixed responses. From a purely scientific research methodology standpoint, the methods that Carney, Cuddy and Zap used a mere six years ago have now fallen out of favor. But as Cuddy points out in her New York Magazine response to Carney’s criticism, there are still 46 studies that support various elements of the benefits of power posing. Cuddy is sticking to her story. Others in the field, including behavioral scientist Uri Simonsohn, at the Wharton School of Business acknowledge that power posing might simply be the placebo effect in play, according to this NPR interview.
But here’s the interesting thing: amongst therapists and practitioners who encourage clients to “power pose” to reduce stress, they say it works. And they don’t particularly care whether it’s placebo or not. Several practitioners supported Cuddy on her Facebook Community page stating that while it’s important to follow rigorous scientific methods in the social sciences, as a matter of practicality, the concept is still useful. One commenter also pointed to this article in Nature claiming that nearly two-thirds of psychology research can’t be replicated.
Now, back to that impromptu meeting I had with Amy Cuddy. I found her to be a genuinely warm person and very interested in the people she was meeting. It’s difficult to fake that sort of sincerity. Does that mean her research was infallible? No. And she doesn’t claim it to be. Her response to Carney’s post was, “Science grows incrementally, moved forward by improved data and discussion, often involving disagreements among scientists, which is a critical part of how science advances. . . I welcome constructive back-and-forth examinations of research findings as we seek the truths that benefit society as a whole.” A classy response to a challenging situation.
This is my take-away: perhaps power posing doesn’t have the measurable cognitive and physiological benefits that Cuddy’s original research suggests. Enough people are finding it useful in their everyday lives to continue to use it as a means to gain confidence. As long as someone finds it useful and the actions they take aren’t harmful, then why not go ahead and continue?
One time, a few years ago, my mom asked her doctor about the benefits of taking a daily multi-vitamin. “Do you think vitamins help you?” he asked. “Yes,” she replied. “Then keep taking them,” he said. My mom continues to take her daily vitamins.
I’m sticking with power posing. And Wonder Woman. Both work for me.
How about you?
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