Watch celebrities on the red carpet, or runway models, and you’ll undoubtedly see the classic stance: chest open, legs apart, head level, usually with a hand on the hip.
It turns out that this pose not only best shows off what they are wearing, but also might send reassuring signals to their brains that they are capable and competent.
A flurry of social-science research over the last three years indicates such expansive postures release a flood of hormones that make you feel more positive and at ease, even if you were a quivering mess of self-doubt beforehand. Striking a commanding pose can change how you perceive yourself, which ultimately influences how you are perceived by others.
The idea that posture is indicative of mental state is not new. Philosophers from Descartes to Ayn Rand wrote about the interplay between psychological and physical bearing. But the latest research suggests posture may precipitate, rather than just reflect, emotions. How you carry yourself can actually change your mood.
“Poses are powerful,” said Amy Cuddy, a social psychologist and associate professor at Harvard Business School. With colleagues, she has, through a series of controlled experiments, shown that assuming an expansive pose (think Wonder Woman with legs planted apart and hands on her hips) for two minutes will increase testosterone and lower cortisol in your bloodstream.
Her research builds on other studies published since 2010, one of which showed recovering alcoholics were less likely to relapse if they had an expansive versus a slouched posture. Another showed that subjects made to assume erect and open postures were more likely to take the initiative or risks in various tasks compared with cohorts who were forced into closed and constricted postures. An expansive stance was also shown to increase pain tolerance.
So how long do the effects of a power pose last? Researchers say the hormonal changes persist for at least 15 to 20 minutes. But Dana Carney, a social psychologist who studies power dynamics and posture at the Haas School of Business at the University of California, Berkeley, said, “It could start a physiological cascade that lasts all day.”
This is a good thing, because there are many situations where moves like Mick Jagger’s aren’t necessarily welcome. “Like a job interview where puffing your chest wouldn’t be appropriate, you can stretch expansively beforehand — on the train, in the elevator, in the waiting room,” Carney said. “So then you kick it off feeling good, you present well, people respond well and — boom — a positive cycle begins.”
To look and perform your best, experts recommend a two-minute power pose before any stressful situation. During the event, keep an expansive posture with your chest open, but not puffed, and keep your head level or slightly raised. Don’t slouch or otherwise fold into yourself or make yourself smaller. Avoid touching your neck, crossing your arms over your chest or grasping the elbow of your opposite arm hanging at your side.
If opening up your body feels forced, researchers say fake it until you become the assured person your stance says you are.
“It’s about becoming so comfortable and feeling you have so much control over how you present yourself that you become more your authentic self,” said Cuddy of Harvard. “It’s about quieting all those voices that say ‘I don’t belong.’”