Powerful insights into how brain works
If you want to win – and survive winning – prime yourself with small victories along the way, keep the common good in mind and strike a pose, writes CLAIRE O'CONNELL
PROF IAN ROBERTSON leans back in his chair, clasps his hands behind his head and puts a leg straight out on the chair beside him. It’s a “power pose” where he visibly takes up more space, and just adopting it is likely to change his brain chemistry and induce feelings of reward.
“By doing this I will feel more confident and more in charge,” says Robertson, professor of psychology at Trinity College Dublin. He explains that assuming power or winning increases levels of the hormone testosterone in men and women. This in turn can boost a chemical messenger called dopamine in the brain’s so-called “reward” pathways.
“Power and success work through the same circuit as sex and cocaine; it’s a basic, primitive reward system.”
I have to admit, even his faked power pose changes the dynamic across the desk in his office, and I feel more settled when he adopts a neutral sitting pose again.
Why are we talking poses, power and brain chemistry? Robertson is the author of a new book, The Winner Effect – How Power Affects Your Brain, where he dissects the psychology and neuroscience linked with winning, whether it’s building a business, lifting a trophy or even getting one up on a sibling.
In a previous book, Mind Sculpture, he looked at how experience shapes our brains, and analysing the effects of the pecking order was a natural progression.
“There has been an explosion of fantastic research in social science, and also – looking at biology and the behaviour of animals – it occurred to me that probably the most important shaper of our brains is other people,” he says. “And one of the main features of our relationships with other people is the competition we are in with some and the power relationships we have with others.”
So what makes a winner come out on top? While genetics and talent play a part in winning, Robertson is quick to point out that the children of highly successful parents can sometimes be hobbled by the notion that they will never live up to the standard that has been set, so there has to be more involved.
Our individual attitude to success and winning could play a powerful role, particularly whether we believe that we are born with a given amount of ability or that we can improve it through work and experience – those who believe the latter may be more motivated to work at a problem, he explains.