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Amy Cuddy Talks Posture, Finding Inner Power

Amy Cuddy told a sold out audience at Robsham Theater that instead of “faking it until you make it,” you should instead find the power so you can “fake it until you become it.” Cuddy, a social psychologist and associate professor at Harvard Business School, lectured this past Tuesday at an event sponsored by the Women’s Center and the Office of Graduate Student Life.

Cuddy is famous for her research of the effects of body language on performance and hormones, and her corresponding TED Talk that, with over 28 million views, is the second most viewed TED Talk ever.

Cuddy first instructed the audience to imagine a high-stake situation or challenging scenario, particular to each person, such as asking for help or standing up to someone. The task would be executed with a sense of anxiety and an inability to be present, where the person was constantly thinking about how he or she was being perceived. Finally, the scenario would end with the person leaving with a sense of disappointment. Cuddy emphasized this inability to be present as the key to the downfall.

“I think of [presence] as the state of being attuned to and comfortably able to express your true thoughts and emotions and values and potential,” Cuddy said.

She explained that presence, for most, is not a permanent state, but is accessed in moments. Everyone can be present, and the more frequently a person accesses this presence, the easier it will become to access it again. Citing Julianne Moore, Cuddy explained that presence is all about power. Cuddy said, however, that the conflict is that neither presence nor power are appealing terms. Presence is a term many believe to be “almost too soft,” while power is a “prickly term.”

“Because power is not just about power over others, it’s about power over the self,” Cuddy said. “You have resources that you can access, but you’re not, and that’s when you’re not present. When you can access those true feelings and values and thoughts and abilities, that’s when you’re present.”

“Your body language is not just speaking to other people, it is also speaking to you.”

She explained that power activates the behavioral approach system, which leads people to see challenges in life with an optimistic outlook—as opportunities instead of threats.

This power allows individuals to access their potential without the distraction of thinking about how they are being perceived by others. On the other hand, when one feels powerless, the inhibition system is activated. This results in perceived threats instead of opportunities, negativity, pessimism, prevention as opposed to promotion, and a socially constrained sense of self.She explained her studies on posture and the effects it has on power as a solution to this problem.

“Your body language is not just speaking to other people, it is also speaking to you,” Cuddy said. “Understanding how this works helps you to feel powerful and present in the exact situations that are high stakes and tend to make you feel powerless and distracted.”

She showed that from primates to humans, dominance and strength are seen through the body spreading out. Showing images including gorillas pounding on their chests, and Wonder Woman and Superman with their hands on their hips, Cuddy showed evidence that these “power poses” among animals are indeed correlated with power.

“When we win first place … this [power pose with arms in the air] is what we do immediately,” Cuddy said.

She then showed the alternative. Cuddy explained that silver medalists, with their head down and arms by their sides, are by far the least happy and are often performing an upward comparison to the one person they could not beat (the gold medalist). That powerlessness is displayed in body language where the body begins to collapse inward, making oneself as small as they can.

Cuddy said high levels of testosterone combined with low levels of cortisol can signal strong leadership, while low levels of testosterone and increased levels of cortisol are connected to weak leadership. Cuddy showed that body language conveying powerlessness increased cortisol levels and decreased testosterone, while power poses increased testosterone and decreased cortisol, supporting the belief that the stance one takes can either increase or decrease their ability to access the power within that person.

She clarified that power posing does not give people more power. It simply allows each person to access the power within them.
Cuddy left the audience with a Maya Angelou quote. “Stand up straight and realize who you are. That you tower over your circumstances.”


Featured Image by James Clark / Heights Staff

October 7, 2015