Character  &  Context

Embodying Power? More Evidence That Power Posing Does Little to Alter the Intrapsychic Experience of Power

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By Katie Garrison & Brandon Schmeichel

People communicate information to others through a variety of nonverbal displays—for example, standing tall and erect can display confidence. However, such nonverbal displays may also communicate information to oneself. 

Researchers have suggested that power poses—presenting the body in an open and expansive manner (e.g., standing tall with arms stretched out) as opposed to a contractive or closed-off manner (e.g., hunched over with arms crossed)—can influence one’s own feelings of power and other power-related outcomes.

For instance, adopting an expansive power pose for just a few minutes has been found to increase risk taking (Carney, Cuddy, & Yap, 2010), pain tolerance (Bohns & Wiltermuth, 2012), feelings of confidence (Cuddy, Wilmuth, Yap, & Carney, 2015), and even dominance-related testosterone levels (Carney et al., 2010). It seems that a small manipulation of the body can have remarkable effects on one’s mental and physiological state.

The implications of power posing are, well, powerful, and the public has been drawn to the appeal of the power pose. Amy Cuddy, a professor at Harvard Business School and a power pose researcher, gave a TED talk on the subject in 2012 that has been viewed over 30 million times. Dr. Cuddy recently published a New York Times best selling book, Presence, which details how simple shifts in body posture can bolster confidence and empower the self.

Despite its popularity, there is also reason to be skeptical of power pose research. A study published in Psychological Science in 2015 by Eva Ranehill and colleagues failed to replicate some previously published effects of power posing. Those who held the expansive power poses reported feeling more powerful, but they did not take more risks or show hormonal changes. This replication study thus cast doubt on the robustness of the power pose phenomenon (see Carney, Cuddy, & Yap, 2015, for discussion of study differences).

In our lab at Texas A&M University, we were intrigued by power pose research and wanted to test the idea for ourselves. We had conducted similar research in the past but had focused on a different manipulation of dominance and power—eye gaze—to study its effects on behavior and self-perceptions of aggression (see Tang & Schmeichel, 2015).

We thought combining a manipulation of body posture with a manipulation of eye gaze would increase (with a direct gaze) or decrease (with averted gaze) the effects of the power pose, so our experiment was both a replication of the original research by Carney and colleagues and an extension with an additional non-verbal display of power.

Following the methods from Carney et al. (2010), we had participants come to the lab and hold either expansive or contractive postures for two minutes. During this time, participants either gazed directly ahead (i.e., dominantly) or down towards the floor (i.e., submissively). We measured risk taking with a decision to gamble a small amount of money, dominance tendencies with an ultimatum game whereby participants decided how much money to share with a hypothetical opponent, and we also collected reports of how powerful and in charge participants felt.

We preregistered our methods and hypotheses on the Open Science Framework (https://osf.io/f8snh/) and collected a large sample of participants to test our hypotheses. A statistical power analysis indicated that we had a large enough sample to detect effects half as large as those reported by Carney et al. for both the risk taking measure and the self-reports of powerful feelings. If power posing had the effects we assumed it did, then we were highly likely to detect them in this experiment.

To our surprise, we found no evidence that holding expansive postures increases risk taking, dominance, or feelings of power. In fact, those who held expansive postures reported feeling slightly less powerful than their counterparts.

Eye gaze direction didn’t matter much, either. A direct (vs. averted) gaze increased the likelihood of rejecting low offers on the ultimatum game, but it did not influence any of the other outcomes related to power. And when we looked only at participants who gazed directly ahead, the power pose effect still did not hold up. See our paper (Garrison, Tang, & Schmeichel, 2016) for a full discussion of the results.

Why didn’t power posing influence our measures of power? There are a number of possibilities. The one we favor is that the simple power pose is not as impactful as was commonly assumed. That’s not to say that power poses and body manipulations more generally lack psychological consequences, but rather that their effects are smaller than has been previously estimated in the literature. If this is the case, then more powerful manipulations and more sensitive outcome measures will be needed to detect them.

The embodiment of power is an interesting and important idea that deserves careful scientific study. Our well-powered, preregistered experiment contributes to research on power posing because it gives an idea of the limits of the phenomenon. As evidence accumulates both in support of and against a hypothesis, the scientific community can get a more complete picture of the phenomenon being studied. In the meantime, it seems prudent to be skeptical of the intrapsychic consequences of adopting an expansive posture.


Katie Garrison is a graduate student in the Psychology Department at Texas A&M University. She is interested in the motivational, cognitive, and emotional components of self-control.

Brandon Schmeichel is a professor at Texas A&M studying self-control, emotion regulation, and ego defenses. Brandon is Katie’s doctoral advisor.

References

Bohns V. B., & Wiltermuth S. S. (2012). It hurts when I do this (or you do that): Posture and pain tolerance. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 48, 341–345.

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, 1363–1368.

Carney D. R., Cuddy A. J. C., & Yap A. J. (2015). Review and summary of research on the embodied effects of expansive (vs. contractive) nonverbal displays. Psychological Science, 26, 657–663.

Cuddy A. J. C., Wilmuth C. A., Yap A. J., & Carney D. R. (2015). Preparatory power posing affects nonverbal presence and job interview performance. Journal of Applied Psychology, 100, 1286–1295.

Garrison, K. E., Tang, D., & Schmeichel, B. J. (2016). Embodying Power: A preregistered replication and extension of the power pose effect. Social Psychological and Personality Science, doi:10.1177/1948550616652209.

Ranehill E., Dreber A., Johannesson M., Leiberg S., Sul S., & Weber R. A. (2015). Assessing the robustness of power posing: No effect on hormones and risk tolerance in a large sample of men and women. Psychological Science, 26, 653–656.

Tang D., & Schmeichel, B. J. (2015). Look me in the eye: Manipulated eye gaze affects dominance mindsets. Journal of Nonverbal Behavior, 39, 181–194.

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