A Controversial Stance: Power Posing Critiques and Applications

By Rory Decker


“Don’t fake it till you make it — fake it till you become it.” - Amy Cuddy


There are countless ways you can trick yourself into feeling more confident or relaxed. We can all practice the “fake it ‘til you make it” idea, whether it is by listening to upbeat music, taking deep breaths, repeating a mantra, dressing for success, or a combination of a few tactics. It can seem superficial to practice these things, but some people stand by these methods, and some researchers believe that these practices can have an even bigger impact than we thought. One highly popular way to fake confidence comes from “power posing,” which became popular in 2012 after Harvard researcher Amy Cuddy’s Ted Talk titled “Your Body Language May Shape Who You Are” suggested that not only would this trick your mind into feeling more confident, but your body chemistry would change, too. The practice can range from seconds to one minute per stance, and it is supposed to lower cortisol levels, which are responsible for stress, and increase testosterone levels, which are responsible for feelings of confidence and power. The people who were tested were assigned to two sets of two poses each, which were either both rated high or low on a scale measuring power.


The low-power postures were both closed-off and small, which in the animal world can be seen as submissive and weak. The high-power postures are open with limbs spread out, and these are commonly seen as a powerful, confident stances because they make people appear bigger. Cuddy’s results were widely popular because they gave people hope. It was no longer a psychological trick, but something that made people feel like they could have more “real” changes throughout their body.


Critiques


There have been issues, however, in replicating these biochemical results in other experiments. This is a critical part of science that not everyone is aware of: if it cannot be replicated, it was likely a false positive finding, meaning that there was not really anything there. There is a common ethical issue in science that comes from people practicing “p-hacking,” as well as other practices, that can help scientists get “statistically significant” results. These are important because if the results are not statistically significant, then they are disregarded and more research needs to be conducted. P-hacking, or selective reporting, is a specific type of inflation bias that can involve recording a lot of data and deciding what to report after data analysis, dropping outliers after analysis, conducting data analysis throughout experiments to decide to continue the experiment or not, stopping data analysis once a statistically significant p-value is reached, and many more tactics. The follow-up research on power posing and accusations of p-hacking help us remember that if something is claiming to be the perfect solution, we should be wary, even if it is scientific research. A true scientist questions everything, and there is not always a consensus on anything. There is always more research to be done, and I think that power posing could have promising results if we conduct more research on its effects.


After all the scrutiny, Cuddy has remained confident in her findings. She says that she welcomes the challenges, yet still believes the idea of power posing could be very helpful. Although her results with the biochemical changes from power posing have yet to be replicated, the psychology aspect of power posing have been replicated in other studies, so it is not as if everything she did was pointless. Women in STEM, as well as other minorities and intersections within STEM, are often fraught with the idea that they are not supposed to be there. A term for this feeling is “imposter syndrome,” and it is a serious issue. Could power posing be a cure to imposter syndrome?


Applications


Women in STEM are underrepresented, and they tend to participate less because of two pressures that prevent them from feeling confident in their studies and work. The first is the “stereotype threat”, which is the fear of embodying negative stereotypes about women in STEM, such not being intelligent. The other is imposter syndrome, which makes women feel as if they do not deserve their accomplishments because they feel that they do not work hard enough or belong in STEM. In a classroom environment people suffering from imposter syndrome feel that the fact that others are not asking questions mean that they are the only ones who do not understand, and that other students are not struggling with the material. This is especially difficult with the culture of STEM courses that are larger and tend to “weed out” the “students who are not supposed to be there,” it can make a student feel that maybe they are not supposed to be there, yet somehow made it through those courses. It is common to feel this way, and it can greatly impact choices women make about pursuing their dreams in STEM.


Clearly, this is not a simple matter of individual confidence, or the lack thereof. It is a systemic issue and I do not intend to minimize it by coming up with a quick, simple solution. But what about the power of confident women in STEM? Something like power posing could be helpful in reminding women to feel better about themselves, and the same goes for other minorities and intersecting minority identities in STEM. I believe in power posing, at least for its psychological benefits, and I think it can be an important tool to improve confidence. Dr. Cuddy’s power posing technique may play a crucial role in an environment that is built to break the confidence of women and minorities, but we are resilient. We can fake confidence for now, and become confident scientists, technicians, engineers, and mathematicians over time to eventually change the system from the inside out.


References:


Carney, D. R., Cuddy, A. J. C., & Yap, A. J. (2010). Power Posing: Brief Nonverbal Displays Affect Neuroendocrine Levels and Risk Tolerance. Psychological Science, 21(10), 1363–1368. https://doi.org/10.1177/0956797610383437


Dominus, S. (2017, October 18). When the Revolution Came for Amy Cuddy. The New York Times. Retrieved from https://www.nytimes.com/2017/10/18/magazine/when-the-revolution-came-for-amy-cuddy.html


Head, M. L., Holman, L., Lanfear, R., Kahn, A. T., & Jennions, M. D. (2015). The Extent and Consequences of P-Hacking in Science. PLOS Biology, 13(3), e1002106. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pbio.1002106


Lindemann, D., Britton, D., & Zundl, E. (2016). “I Don’t Know Why They Make It So Hard Here”: Institutional Factors and Undergraduate Women’s STEM Participation. International Journal of Gender, Science and Technology, 8(2), 221–241.

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