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Strike a Pose: How Modeling Behaviors Can Change Your Outlook

October 21, 2013

Feeling downtrodden and powerless? Take a tip from the bantam rooster. It may be the most diminutive of chickens, but it struts its stuff like a cassowary. When it strides the barnyard, all the other fowl give it a wide berth.  And by practicing a similar swagger, you can achieve the same ends. By acting powerful you become, in effect – powerful.

That’s how research from Berkeley psychology and Haas School of Business assistant professor Dana Carney was characterized in a recent Wall Street Journal article on “power poses.” The piece championed a regimen of practicing stances and positions that projected strength and aggression: Standing straight and leaning forward in a slightly predacious manner with hands on hips or the sides, or while sitting, leaning forward with hands spread on a desk top.

Getting back to gallinaceous birds, it’s a situation that kind of paraphrases the old chicken-and-egg conundrum. Which came first? The powerful or the power pose?

 Anyway, Carney notes some of the nuances of her research were lost in the editing of the Wall Street Journal article. Practicing power posing in front of the mirror before The Big Meeting is just part of it, she told us in a phone interview.

“It’s more that we’ve accumulated quite a bit of data showing there is a directional link between mind and body,” Carney said. “For example, when you smile, the zygomaticus major muscle around your mouth contracts. This contraction, in and of itself, can make you feel happier. Similarly, when you push things away – or adopt postures suggestive of pushing and isolating — it contributes to feelings of discontent, crankiness. So to a significant degree, you can affect your state of mind by adopting postures associated with that state. A ‘fake’ smile can actually put you in a happier frame of mind. It’s kind of like when your mother kicked you out the door and said, ‘Go to school, you’ll feel better.’ So you went to school – and you felt better.”

So your colleague who is happier and more powerful than you may simply be more adept at practicing heuristic techniques that conduce to happiness and power.  Nor does it take hours of training to master such techniques, Carney said.

“Our research indicates you don’t need to spend a lot of time at it,” she said. “If you’re anxious before a presentation or a pitch, you can spend a few moments beforehand walking around with your hands on your hips, actively trying to expand your body. We’ve demonstrated that this initiates a physiological response that allows you to handle stress better.”

Carney emphasizes that her research is rooted as much in philosophy as psychology.

“It goes back to Descartes and mind-body dualism,” she says. “The idea that the body affects the mind is nothing new – we’re just providing some confirmation.”

–Glen Martin

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