Powerful people use their bodies to convey authority. There's the hawklike leaning-forward pose, made famous in a 1957 photograph of Lyndon Johnson looming over his tiny colleague Senator Theodore Green or, more recently, by Sue Sylvester in almost every episode of Glee. There's also a subtle, more relaxed way to convey power, which is to occupy as much space as possible feet on the desk, fingers interlaced behind the head, elbows expansive. You can find images of several Presidents so comporting themselves in the Oval Office as their advisers smile nervously.
Recently, a team of researchers at Columbia and Harvard wondered not whether power can manifest itself in posture that seems clear but whether certain postures could make people feel more commanding. More powerful people i.e., those who make more money and have higher-status jobs reliably show higher levels of testosterone (no matter their gender) and lower levels of the stress hormone cortisol than people lower on the totem pole. The researchers reasoned that if you put low-power people in high-power postures, their hormones might respond accordingly.
To see if the researchers were right, I went to a Columbia lab, sat down in my typical slouch and spat into a little tube. Have you ever tried to spit on demand? It's harder than you think. Columbia assistant professor Dana Carney gave me a piece of gum to help. Then Carney put me in the hawk and feet-on-the-desk power postures, and 15 minutes later, I spat into another tube.
Carney sent both spit samples to a lab at Penn State. When the results came back a couple of weeks later, it turned out my testosterone had doubled in the short amount of time I spent in the power positions.
My response wasn't unusual. In the most recent issue of Psychological Science, Carney and her colleagues Andy Yap at Columbia and Amy Cuddy at Harvard published a paper evaluating the responses of 42 people who underwent a test similar to the one I took. They found that cortisol and testosterone levels significantly changed for most people after they had been placed in high-power postures. Conversely, testosterone levels fell significantly in participants who were placed in low-power positions those who had to either sit with shoulders slumped or stand with ankles crossed and arms hugging the torso.
All of the participants were subsequently given $2 and told they could keep the money or possibly double it in a gambling exercise. Nearly all the people who had been placed in high-power poses opted to double down. They were more likely to risk losing the money than the low-power people and to report feeling powerful.
The paper builds on earlier research showing that if you hold a pencil in your teeth which forces your facial muscles to approximate a smile you will report feeling happier. Carney and her colleagues have a useful phrase for how posturing the body can change the mind: it's called the effects of embodiment. And their findings support the notion that you really can fake it till you make it.