Watch celebrities on the red carpet, or models on a runway, and you'll undoubtedly see the classic stop-for-the-flashing-cameras stance: chest open, legs apart, head level, usually with a hand on the hip. It turns out that this pose not only best shows off what they are wearing, but also might send reassuring signals to their brains that they are capable and competent.
A flurry of social-science research over the past three years indicates such expansive postures release a flood of hormones that make you feel more positive and at ease, even if you were a quivering mess of self-doubt beforehand. Striking a commanding pose, whether you are in a sparkling gown or frayed jeans, can change how you perceive yourself, which ultimately influences how you are perceived by others.
The idea that posture is indicative of mental state is not new. Philosophers from Descartes to Ayn Rand wrote about the interplay between psychological and physical bearing. But the latest research suggests posture may precipitate, rather than just reflect, emotions. How you carry yourself can actually change your mood, which greatly affects how you approach situations and solve problems, as well as how attractive you appear to those around you.
"Poses are powerful," said Amy Cuddy, a social psychologist and associate professor at Harvard Business School. With colleagues, she has, through a series of controlled experiments, shown that assuming an expansive pose (think Wonder Woman with legs planted apart and hands on her hips) for two minutes will increase testosterone and lower cortisol in your bloodstream. Cuddy's TED talk on the subject has gone viral on the internet, now with over 5 million views.
Her research builds on other studies published since 2010, one of which showed recovering alcoholics were less likely to relapse if they had an expansive versus a slouched posture. Another showed that subjects made to assume erect and open postures were more likely to take the initiative or risks in various tasks compared with cohorts who were forced into closed and constricted postures. An expansive stance was also shown to increase pain tolerance.
So how long do the effects of a power pose last? Researchers say the hormonal changes persist for at least 15 to 20 minutes. But Dana Carney, a social psychologist who studies power dynamics and posture at the Haas School of Business at the University of California, Berkeley, said, "It could start a physiological cascade that lasts all day."
This is a good thing, because there are many situations where moves like Mick Jagger's aren't necessarily welcome. "Like a job interview where puffing your chest wouldn't be appropriate, you can stretch expansively beforehand — on the train, in the elevator, in the waiting room," Carney said. "So then you kick it off feeling good, you present well, people respond well and — boom — a positive cycle begins."
John Neffinger, a consultant to aspiring politicians and business leaders, advises spreading arms and legs to form an X like Yul Brynner in The King and I before any stressful situation, be it a speech, meeting, cocktail party, parent-teacher conference or doctor's appointment. "We've seen posing make a tremendous difference in people's presentation and performance," he said. "It's gives you a boost of testosterone."
Another witness to the transformative power of posture is Joe Navarro, a former FBI agent with expertise in non-verbal communication and author of several books on the subject. "When the military or police academies make recruits stand a certain way, it not only changes the perception of others but also their perceptions of themselves," he said. "Broader postures really do pump you up and make you feel better."
But don't overdo it, like Angelina Jolie jutting out her leg on the red carpet at the 2012 Academy Awards. "That only invited mockery," said Navarro, who suggests striving for something more like the confident but not overconfident carriage of Jessica Chastain at the Oscars this year. He also advises against constricting clothing like Bradley Cooper's three-piece tuxedo this year at the awards ceremony. "He looked so occluded and stiff cinched up in that vest," he said.
To look and perform your best, academic and image experts recommend a two-minute power pose before any stressful situation. During the event, keep an expansive posture with your chest open, but not puffed, and keep your head level or slightly raised. Don't slouch or otherwise fold into yourself or make yourself smaller. Avoid touching your neck, crossing your arms over your chest or grasping the elbow of your opposite arm hanging at your side.
If opening up your body feels forced, unnatural and unprotected, researchers say fake it until you become the assured person your stance says you are. That's not to say you will suddenly become an alpha type or introverts will become extroverts. Posture-induced feelings of power and competence will make you more at ease and poised, not change your personality.
"It's about becoming so comfortable and feeling you have so much control over how you present yourself that you become more your authentic self," said Cuddy of Harvard. "It's about quieting all those voices that say, 'I don't belong'."