Power Posing: Fake It Until You Make It

Nervous about an upcoming presentation or job interview? Holding one's body in "high-power" poses for short time periods can summon an extra surge of power and sense of well-being when it's needed, according to Harvard Business School professor Amy J.C. Cuddy.
by Julia Hanna

We can't be the alpha dog all of the time. Whatever our personality, most of us experience varying degrees of feeling in charge. Some situations take us down a notch while others build us up.

New research shows that it's possible to control those feelings a bit more, to be able to summon an extra surge of power and sense of well-being when it's needed: for example, during a job interview or for a key presentation to a group of skeptical customers.

"Our research has broad implications for people who suffer from feelings of powerlessness and low self-esteem due to their hierarchical rank or lack of resources," says HBS assistant professor Amy J.C. Cuddy, one of the researchers on the study.

“It's not about the content of the message, but how you're communicating it.”

In "Power Posing: Brief Nonverbal Displays Affect Neuroendocrine Levels and Risk Tolerance", Cuddy shows that simply holding one's body in expansive, "high-power" poses for as little as two minutes stimulates higher levels of testosterone (the hormone linked to power and dominance in the animal and human worlds) and lower levels of cortisol (the "stress" hormone that can, over time, cause impaired immune functioning, hypertension, and memory loss).

The result? In addition to causing the desired hormonal shift, the power poses led to increased feelings of power and a greater tolerance for risk.

"We used to think that emotion ended on the face," Cuddy says. "Now there is established research showing that while it's true that facial expressions reflect how you feel, you can also 'fake it until you make it.' In other words, you can smile long enough that it makes you feel happy. This work extends that finding on facial feedback, which is decades old, by focusing on postures and measuring neuroendocrine levels."

The Experiment

In their article, to be published in a forthcoming Psychological Science, Cuddy and coauthors Dana R. Carney and Andy J. Yap of Columbia University detail the results of an experiment in which forty-two male and female participants were randomly assigned to a high- or low-power pose group. No one was told what the study was about; instead, each participant believed it was related to the placement of ECG electrodes above and below his or her heart.

Subjects in the high-power group were manipulated into two expansive poses for one minute each: first, the classic feet on desk, hands behind head; then, standing and leaning on one's hands over a desk. Those in the low-power group were posed for the time period in two restrictive poses: sitting in a chair with arms held close and hands folded, and standing with arms and legs crossed tightly. Saliva samples taken before and after the posing measured testosterone and cortisol levels. To evaluate risk tolerance, participants were given $2 and told they could roll a die for even odds of winning $4. Finally, participants were asked to indicate how "powerful" and "in charge" they felt on a scale from one to four.

Controlling for subjects' baseline levels of both hormones, Cuddy and her coauthors found that high-power poses decreased cortisol by about 25 percent and increased testosterone by about 19 percent for both men and women. In contrast, low-power poses increased cortisol about 17 percent and decreased testosterone about 10 percent.

Not surprisingly, high-power posers of both sexes also reported greater feelings of being powerful and in charge. In addition, those in the high-power group were more likely to take the risk of gambling their $2; 86 percent rolled the die in the high-power group as opposed to 60 percent of the low-power posers.

Previous research established that situational role changes can cause shifts in hormone levels. In primate groups, for example, after an alpha male dies the testosterone levels of the animal replacing him go up. The hormonal shifts measured in this experiment show that such changes can be influenced independent of role, situation, or any consciously focused thoughts about power. The physical poses are enough.

And that, she suggests, has broad implications for people who suffer from feelings of powerlessness and low self-esteem due to their hierarchical rank or lack of resources.

Why We Judge

Cuddy's overall research agenda focuses on stereotyping and questions around how we form judgments of others' warmth and competence.

Just Because I'm Nice, Don't Assume I'm Dumb reveals how and why we come to snap judgments about coworkers (and how to fight that natural instinct). The article was cited as a "Breakthrough Business Idea" for 2009 by Harvard Business Review.

"The power poses paper came about in part because my coauthor Dana and I had noticed that women in our classes seemed to be participating less," says Cuddy, who teaches the MBA elective Power and Influence. "Some of the women exhibited body language associated with low power, so we wondered if that was in turn affecting how they feel," she adds, citing the "fake it till you make it" research that shows smiling can affect feelings and hormone levels.

“It's about understanding what moves people.”

"The poses that we used in the experiment are strongly associated across the animal kingdom with high and low dominance for very straightforward evolutionary reasons. Either you want to be big because you're in charge, or you want to close in and hide your vital organs because you're not in charge.

"It does appear that even this minimal manipulation can change people's physiology and psychology and, we hope, lead to very different, meaningful outcomes, whether it's how they perform in a job interview or how they participate in class."

Cuddy acknowledges that there are moderating factors in how easily some groups can use traditional power poses. It would run counter to social norms, for example, if a woman wearing a skirt sat with her feet up on her desk while talking to a colleague.

"I'm not saying it's fair, but there is a different range for women versus men," says Cuddy, who also teaches several HBS Executive Education programs.

Female managers seem to have an intuition about the need to communicate confidence by striking expansive poses through other means. They might use a whiteboard as a prop that they can reach out and rest a hand on—allowing them to take up more space.

"There are implications across cultures as well," she adds. Cuddy believes American poses are bigger and more flamboyant than what would be acceptable in Korea or Japan, for example, and expects to focus on this question in future research.

Warmth Versus Competence

It ultimately boils down to how we connect to one another. In general, she says, people form impressions of others through a matrix of how much we trust and like them and how much we think they're competent and respect them.

For the most part people underestimate the powerful connection of warmth and overestimate the importance of competence.

"We are influenced, and influence others, through very unconscious and implicit processes," she says. "People tend to spend too much energy focusing on the words they're saying—perfectly crafting the content of the message—when in many cases that matters much less than how it's being communicated. People often are more influenced by how they feel about you than by what you're saying. It's not about the content of the message, but how you're communicating it.

"Many students believe that if they have a great idea, they should be able to magnetize their audience toward them because their audience will recognize the 'greatness' of that idea—that they'll get on board because the idea is so good," she continues. "I try to show students that it doesn't work that way—you have to go meet people where they are and then all move together. You have to connect with them before you can lead them."

If understanding how you are influenced and can influence others feels a bit too Machiavellian, Cuddy helps bring it down a notch.

"It's not about politics," she says. "It's about understanding what moves people."

About the Author

Julia Hanna is Associate Editor of the HBS Alumni Bulletin.
    • Jodelle
    • Employee Survey Toolkit
    Interesting research and findings! It never ceases to impress me how strong and fascinating human biology and will are, and the complexity of human relationships and communications.

    My favorite line has to be: "You have to connect with them before you can lead them." So many managers fail to realize this and use intimidation and fear to gain what they want, not realizing that a less aggressive, and even healthier manner of communication would be more helpful.

    I'm also very interested in the different ranges for men and women. Is it truly biological differences or learned, cultural dynamics that impose the difference in range? From your example, I'm guessing it's the latter. I look forward to reading about this in the future.
    • Kapil Kumar Sopory
    • Company Secretary, SMEC(India) Private Limited
    We do come across persnalities who indulge in such faking games. The clever ones will satisfy you that they are right and, despite the contra logic in your nmind, you will be hypnotized to believe.
    Julia's analysis of causes leading to all this is a very focused indepth study.
    Her psyche analysis is commendable.
    • Mariane Della Rocca
    • Head of Marketing, PressMatrix
    I find the research and its findings are extremely interesting.

    Confidence is an overarching topic and factor in management, as it affects perception (both yours and others of yourself and your work) and your actual work (productivity, effectiveness and creativity). In steep-learning phases, were it is critical to "take it all in", confidence is fragile but critical. Do you know more about that correlation?

    This also reminds me of one of my professors explaining how communication is 20% verbal and 80% body language. I don't know if the concept is still up-to-date (is it?) but yes, we think more of the words (content) in our messages, than the container. I suppose the latter requires a deeper change in ourselves.

    Your research gives extremely useful insights to directly and easily help improve the state of mind and influence motivation and results straight away. Thank you for sharing this.
    • Nina
    • DCS
    Check out this article - the last part in particular affirms the value of warmth vs. competence -- the power of the meet and greet when folks walk in the door.

    good stuff.
    • Wayne Hosking
    • Partner, Construction Systems Group, Inc.
    Great article and great idea for research. I'm not totally surprised by the results - intuitively I know I have done these things successfully. Nevertheless, I can't help but find it a little disturbing.
    Maybe you should re-post that article about the relative value of decision-making "by the numbers" vs. decision-making by the "gut feeling." There may be a causal relationship here.
    • Mandy Geddes
    • General Manager, Education, Institute of Executive Coaching and Leadership
    This is fascinating stuff! I'm particularly intrigued as a former yoga teacher (current yoga student) because there are "power poses" in yoga (e.g. the warrior) that seem to literally make you feel stronger and braver. I now plan to spend a little time each day with my feet up on desk :-)
    • john lawrence
    • adj prof, columbia university
    creative research and interesting findings... does anyone see the potential significance for recent US presidential election results? One nominee exhuded confidence, assertiveness and personal warmth, the other seemed unconvincing in all three... however we should not underestimate the importance (for students as well as politicians) of careful, substantive preparation and experience as strong underpinnings for sustained, rather than momentary confidence.
    • Anonymous
    I remember as a young law associate that a coworker (female) came into my office, sat down in and put her feet up on my desk. I was so intimidated and felt she was way out of line. She had trained in acting as an undergrad, and perhaps she knew what you have demonstrated!

    The big PS is once we weren't working at that firm, we didn't feel so competitive towards each other (as law firm politics typically can make associates feel ). She was much more savvy to begin with, that is for sure!
    • Lori
    • Kennedy, Louisbourg Seafoods Ltd.
    I enjoyed the "Fake It Until You Make It" I had the privledge of having Professor Amy Cuddy at the Womens Leadership forum this past May.
    • Anonymous
    It would be very interesting to see some research on how the different yoga posses alter different hormone levels and if the way they are combine make a difference in the results, i.e combining a warrior pose with a stretch, etc,.
    • vagal ss
    • senior, Govt
    yogis knew it long ago... manipulating the mind and brain through the body. Some poses and exercises are supposedly meant to create the appropriate moods such as confident, heroic, calm, focused, meditative, curative, heating/cooling the body parts, including stimulation of certain organs and glands..etc
    • vagal ss
    • Senior Executive, Govt
    The researcher may perhaps be aware of "Mudra yoga" where various "poses" of the fingers are supposed to create specific effects... i wonder whether there is any research to validate such claims...
    • vagal ss
    • Senior Executive, Govt.
    further to my comments..... do others read dominance from the stance or the smell of testosterone..?
    • vagal ss
    • Senior Executive, Govt.
    further to my observation of what the yogis knew...

    is there any research on whether doses of testosterone, perhaps elevating the level of testosterone in one higher than the others, can actually give dominance to a person in a situation..?
    • maya
    loved it!!!
    • Mathew.V
    • Sr.Mgr, Consulting company
    Thank you for the insightful article. We are also dealing with lesser facetime interactions causing us to focus on the written content as opposed to the delivery.
    • Anonymous
    At first glance, I think this is an incredibly great idea, and also could be an extension of Sheryl Sandberg's whole concept of "leaning in" for women. Men are extremely good at postering in the workplace and are better trained by the world to act like they know what they are talking about. Women would be wise to take a lesson from this. It goes hand in hand with leaning in.
    • Sharon McCampbell
    • Owner/Operator, Body & Soul Fitness
    Thank you for the reinforcement of posture. For years I've touted good posture and confidence.

    You drove it home. I stand tall when I feel good and especially when I don't.

    It helps on one level and hurts on another. People tend to think I'm strong all the time and I'm not.
    • Hugh Quick
    • home, none
    I think Julia Hanna has got it right. Power comes from influence and influence is usually based on trust.
    • S.Gopalakrishnan
    • Vice Chairman of Bharatiya Vidya Bhavan and also Chairman / Co- Chairman / Vice chairman of a few Bhavan's Educational Institutions, Bharatiya Vidya Bhavan, Hyderabad, India
    An excellent article. "Content of the message matters less than how it is being communicated". This is the most valuable guideline to all teachers, politicians, social activists and every one interested in communicating a good idea to others.
    • Monique Maley
    • Principal, ArticulatePersuasion
    Actors have known this for years. A character's physical life informs the role. I wouldn't says it's 'faking' however. I tell my clients that it is about assuming the role you want to play, not the one you feel you are cast in at the moment.
    • Neville Suzman
    • VP BPM Consulting, CIGNON
    I'm wondering if any specific research has been done in connection with software interface display visuals that also effect the impact message persuasion delivery in a similar way? This would certainly draw some parallels as to what visual pose for example on a website interface be considered more trusting ? There is obviously a fortune of usability studies but I wonder if there are any specific parallels drawn?