The power of body language is striking

Tue, Oct 23, 2012, 01:00

THAT'S MEN:Walking the walk is not just empty posturing

A FRIEND harbours a resentment towards an old teacher who was a bit of a rough diamond. The teacher believed in the superiority of sports over study, saw a good fight as a character-

building event and was quick to correct any unmanly behaviour he saw among his boys.

My friend resents particularly the times the teacher stopped him on the corridor or in the school yard and barked at him to: “Walk like a man!” Sometimes this injunction was accompanied by a punch to the shoulder.

I thought of my friend and the teacher when I watched a talk on ted.comby Amy Cuddy, a professor at Harvard Business School. Prof Cuddy studies body language and she and the old teacher, though inhabiting entirely different worlds, would have felt right at home with each other.

Our rough diamond was convinced of the importance of body language and so is his Harvard counterpart. He believed boys should carry themselves so as to appear strong and unafraid of the world – no nervous shrinking for him – and Prof Cuddy has found that this works for both men and women.

Posture affects how others see us but her research suggests it also strongly influences how we see ourselves.

We are more likely to vote for politicians we like the look of (all that make-up and airbrushing is for a purpose) and we are less likely to sue doctors whose way of carrying themselves suggests they are likeable people, previous research suggests.

When we feel powerful we stretch out, we puff ourselves up, we make ourselves bigger and take up more space. Think of an athlete who has just won a big competition: leaping, arms up and stretched, chest out, all taking up space.

When we feel powerless we do the opposite: we shrink into ourselves, taking up less space – look at a football team after losing a big game.

Women, she has observed in her classes at Harvard, are more likely than men to make themselves small in this way.

People in power have higher levels of testosterone (which is related to power and dominance) and lower levels of the stress hormone cortisol than average.

Prof Cuddy did an experiment on these two factors by bringing experimental subjects into a laboratory setting, taking a saliva sample, and asking them to assume either “high power” or “low power” poses for a few minutes. Then she asked them to play a gambling game and took another saliva sample afterwards.

The results were striking. The people who had adopted a high power pose had increased their testosterone level by 20 per cent and had decreased cortisol levels of 25 per cent. The low power people had a 10 per cent fall in testosterone and a 15 per cent increase in cortisol.

What this suggests is that posture isn’t an empty act; it really affects how you are, what’s running through your body and how you behave (high power people were more likely to take a risk in the gambling game).

It also affects how you are seen by others. In a simulated job interview, people who had previously practised a high power pose for a short time were more likely to be seen by the interviewers as employable than those who had practised a low power pose.

She suggests that sitting there hunched up reading your notes or phone when waiting for a job interview is not a great strategy: get into the loo and practise standing as if you have power and your performance at the interview will change for the better. This doesn’t, she points out, mean you should sit back with your feet on the desk during the interview; it’s about psyching yourself up mentally and physically beforehand.

The lesson?

He might get a poor report from the inspectorate today but that rough diamond of a teacher knew what he was talking about.


You can watch Prof Cuddy’s talk at bit.ly/profcuddy


Padraig O’Morain(pomorain@ireland.com) is a counsellor accredited by the Irish Association for Counselling and Psychotherapy. His book, Light Mind – Mindfulness for Daily Living, is published by Veritas. His monthly mindfulness newsletter is available free by email.