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Published 15 October 2012 14:24, Updated 16 October 2012 05:37
It does not matter what sort of justifying games you play inside your head – if you don’t act powerful, you won’t be powerful.
This is the advice of Amy Cuddy, an associate professor at the Harvard Business School, who has researched the impact our body language has on our own brains.
So, it doesn’t matter if you are the smartest person in the room, if you sit hunched and folded up on yourself, you will always be overshadowed by the booming-voiced try hard who takes up too much space.
And it is not just about how other people see you, it is about how you subconsciously perceive yourself.
There is plenty of research on how, for instance, smiling makes you happier. This occurs even when the smile is fake, or forced by holding a pencil lengthwise between your teeth.
The muscles you use to smile send signals to the brain and trick it into believing you must be happy – because you are smiling. It then releases the hormones that give you the appropriate lift in mood.
That is why the adage “fake it till you make it” is so effective.
However, Cuddy goes a step further: “Fake it till you become it,” she advised a TED conference earlier this year.
She has some personal experience. When she was 19, Cuddy sustained head injuries in a bad car accident.
“I woke up in a head injury rehabilitation centre .... my IQ had dropped by two standard deviations,” she said.
This was a crushing blow. She had been a gifted child and was now told she would not be able to finish college. However, she struggled through and did graduate – although it took her four years longer than her peers.
She then went to Princeton University, but was on the brink of quitting before her first talk to the university when her adviser passionately argued that she should just “fake it” and keep faking it until she didn’t feel a fake any more. Cuddy prevailed and has been able to use her experience to inspire others.
She says universities have been struggling with the fact that female students (who adopt more submissive poses) do not participate as much in class as males, and this affects their grades, which are 50 per cent dependent on class participation.
But what also affects performance are stress and dominance hormones, which are directly affected by our body language.
”Powerful people tend to be more assertive, more optimistic. They tend to think more abstractly,” Cuddy said in her presentation.
High power “alpha types” tend to have more testosterone (the dominance hormone) and lower cortisol (the stress hormone.)
Cuddy has found that people going for a job interview are more likely to be hired if they practise a “power pose” for as little as two minutes before their interview.
The power pose could be the familiar victory pose of althletes winning a race – arms spread out and head thrown back. It could also be standing firmly with hands on hips, leaning back in a chair with feet on a desk and hands behind head, or standing and leaning forward with both hands on a table.
After just two minutes of these poses (some of which could be practised in private in a bathroom), 86 per cent of the “posers” said they would gamble, compared with 60 per cent of those who held submissive poses.
This indicates that those with powerful body language are more likely to take risks.
When the subjects were tested for hormone levels, the power posers had a 20 per cent increase in testosterone, while the submissives had a 10 per cent decrease. The power posers had a 25 per cent fall in cortisol levels, compared with a 15 per cent rise in submissives.
Cuddy advises that people, especially women, should find the time to practise power posing: “tiny tweaks can lead to big changes”.