We are used to reading that nonverbal language—our gestures and body postures—reveals our mood or psychological state, something we reflect even in our metaphorical way of speaking when using expressions such as “to carry the weight of the world on one’s shoulders”, used in reference to a feeling of worry or responsibility, and “to hold your head high”, which alludes to a sense of pride.
But what happens if we adopt a similar posture on purpose? Can certain body postures change our mood or psychological state?
Can certain body postures change your psychological state?
Columbia University researcher Dana R. Carney and her research group wondered about this question and carried out a study  to test whether adopting high-power poses (expansive postures with open limbs, which in nature are associated with a high level of power or rank of the individual who exhibits them) causes psychological, physiological, and behavioral changes, which make participants feel and behave in a manner consistent with what has been observed in powerful individuals.
High-power posers, in addition to adopting more expansive and open body poses which project dominance, were also more willing to engage in action and take more risks, and felt more powerful and in charge .
On the contrary, low-power posers exhibited the opposite pattern. Participants in the low-power group held contractive, closed poses (limbs touching the torso) which project low power; they also took fewer risks during the experiment.
In addition, in humans and other animals, the neuroendocrine profiles of powerful and powerless individuals also differ, with power holders showing high testosterone levels (the dominance hormone) and low cortisol levels (the stress hormone),while low testosterone levels and high cortisol levels were seen in low-power individuals.
Taking all this into consideration, researchers collected saliva samples before and after the power-pose manipulation (high-power or low-power poses) to test cortisol and testosterone levels. After the participants had held either pose for 1 minute, participants’ risk-taking was measured (with a gambling task); feelings of power were measured with self-reports on a scale from 1 (not at all) to 4 (a lot).
Researchers observed that participants who adopted high-power poses showed, as hypothesized, changes regarding their baseline levels (before the power-pose manipulation): testosterone levels had increased and cortisol levels had decreased; high-power posers also reported feeling more powerful and in charge. In addition, 86.36% of the high-power posers showed increased risk-taking behavior in the gambling task in contrast to only 60% of the low-power posers.
Low-power posers also showed changes consistent with predictions: decreased testosterone levels and increased cortisol levels; and in addition, their feelings of power were lower than before adopting the power-pose.
Thus, researchers concluded that a simple 1-min power-pose manipulation was enough to significantly alter the physiological, mental, and behavioral states of the participants and that by changing posture, individuals can prepare their mental and physiological systems to endure difficult and stressful situations.
Implications for Clinical Practice
What is striking about these results is how immediate the effects of changing body posture occurred, especially since these took place after holding power-poses for 1 minute and 17 minutes after the power-pose manipulation.
This, in addition to providing scientific support to the adaptive value of “fake it ’til you make it” attitude, has interesting implications for clinical practice: in the field of neurorehabilitation in particular, taking care of patients’ posture during cognitive assessment and rehabilitation is important since certain postures (or similar ones) can modify feelings of dominance and power by increasing or decreasing them. In turn, it has been observed that low power can causesignificant deficits in cognitive performance , specifically on executive-function tasksthat measure inhibition, planning, and updating .
Body posture also influences the retrieval of emotional memories and facilitates retrieval of autobiographical memories, an issue that will be addressed in an upcoming post.
- Carney, D.R., Cuddy, A.J.C. and Yap, A.J. (2010). Powerposing: brief nonverbal displays affect neuroendocrine levels and risk tolerance. PsychologicalScience, 21(10) 1363-1368.
- Smith, P.K., Jostmann, N.B., Galinsky, A.D., & van Dijk, W.W. (2008). Lacking power impairs executive functions. PsychologicalScience, 19, 441–447.