Can your posture make you feel in control and less stressed?
The next time you are in a meeting, check out how the boss is sitting. The most senior people will likely be the ones stretching back in their chairs, clasping hands behind their heads and sticking out elbows and legs. Alternatively, and more alarmingly for the juniors in the room, they might hunch forward over the table, head thrust out, hands clasped well out into the neutral no-man’s land of the table. The wary juniors, meanwhile, may be shrinking the space they occupy as much as possible, hands clasped and heads slightly bowed.
Dana Carney and her colleagues [i] from Columbia and Harvard Universities asked volunteers to strike poses for one minute at a time which were either expansive ‘power poses’, or contracted ‘junior’ poses. The explanation given to the participants was that the researchers needed to have the legs raised above the heart so as to get proper physiological recordings. A contracted ‘low power’ pose would for instance be standing with head slightly bowed and arms folded tightly across the chest.
Even though they only held these positions for one minute at a time, the groups who took the high power poses rated themselves as significantly more ‘in charge’ and ‘powerful’ than those who took the low power poses.
This could seem like a pretty trivial finding – a minute of standing in a particular position makes both men and women rate themselves as feeling more ‘in charge’. Except that the couple of minutes in the posture also changes something else, something that is key to the winner effect – testosterone. Among the 26 women and 16 men who took part, those who struck the brief high power poses showed significant increases in testosterone to match their increased ‘I feel in charge’ feelings, while those in the low power poses showed an equivalent decrease in testosterone which was in line with their lowered ‘in charge’ feelings.
But there was another important hormonal change triggered by the poses struck: levels of a the stress hormone cortisol decreased after the high power poses and increased after the low power poses. A sense of power and control boosts testosterone and sooths nerves by turning down the anxiety-linked hormone cortisol.
The lessons of this for all strands of life, from family to business, are pretty considerable. Even tiny, shortlasting changes in the way we hold ourselves can change our bodies and brains in profound ways. No wonder parents urge their adolescents not to slump. Of course Sandhurst and West Point drill sergeants spend months building a broad-chested, erect posture in their officer cadets. Naturally trade union leaders raise their fists in assertions of victory at mass meetings.
The lesson is clear: no matter what I feel inside, if I behave as if I feel the way I want to feel, the feelings will likely follow. Then I might enter a positive feedback loop, where other people respond to me in such a way as to confirm or support these initially faked emotions.