To Fake It, or Not To Fake It

Dr. Amy Cuddy is a social scientist at Harvard Business School and an expert on prejudice. Her most recent article (Co-authored with Dana R. Carney) focuses on the relationship between physical postures and hormone levels in the body. It’s attracted enough attention to earn her a TED talk, which is how I first found her.

Since ancient times, we have taken for granted that body posturing reflects a person’s mood at that moment. The West, and in particular the U.S., makes body language observance practically into a fetish. One needs look no further than the recent presidential debates to see pundits over-analyze and misconstrue every twitch and tick of the candidates.

Dr. Cuddy (She must get a lot of grief from fans of the show House) further points out that body language also predicts behavioral outcomes. She cites research in which experiment subjects who viewed 30-second (silent) videos of doctors speaking to their patients could accurately predict which doctors were more likely to be sued based on their non-verbal manner (demonstrating that doctors’ behavior correlates more strongly with lawsuits than does their competence).

Now to the central question: we know that non-verbals can govern how we feel about, and behave toward, other people; do they also determine how we think and feel about ourselves? In other words, do our physicality and posture influence our mood as much as our mood influences our physicality and posture?

Dr. Cuddy designed an experiment in which subjects held a certain body pose for two minutes. They were not told about the nature of the poses, but half of the subjects posed in attitudes of “high power” (e.g. hands on hips, leaned back, arms extended upwards and wide, etc.) and the other half posed in attitudes of “low power” (e.g. contracted core, legs crossed at the knee, hands touching neck, etc.). They than ran a number of tests on these subjects including questionnaires, gambling tests, and saliva tests for endocrine levels.

She found that those who held the high-power poses for two minutes showed more poise and confidence immediately afterword, were more optimistic, and willing to take risks. Most striking, the two groups showed vastly different levels of certain hormones in the saliva tests. Those who held the high-power posers showed a 20% testosterone increase from baseline (low-power posers showed a 10% decrease). This explains the increased feelings of optimism and confidence. Also, high-power posers showed a 25% decrease in cortisol (low-power posers showed a 15% increase). Cortisol governs stress-reactivity – lower levels of the hormone tend to indicate better coping. It seems, amazingly enough, that physicality actually changes body chemistry.

Is all this of any practical use? Cuddy repeated the experiment and put the subjects through a subsequent high-stress job interview simulation. The interviewers were blind to the hypothesis and to the priming of the individual candidates. The hiring preferences of the interviewers significantly correlated with the high-power/low-power priming of the candidates.

From the article “Power Posing,” published in Psychological Science

In terms of who we would choose as our associates and our leaders, we tend to choose those people who are physiologically disposed towards optimism, confidence, and low reactivity to stress. Thanks to this research, we now know how that disposition manifests on a medical level.

Cuddy asks, finally, “Is this fake?” Does this type of physical priming cause us to behave in inauthentic ways? Her whole life she had heard others say, “Fake it ’til you make it,” and she has benefited significantly from this advice. In her talk, she related a moving personal tale in which she felt like an imposter when she enrolled at Princeton. Luckily she had a mentor who insisted she behave outwardly as though she had the confidence she lacked. Through this, Cuddy’s situation gradually improved until she could establish herself at Harvard and pay the gesture forward.

She would correct the truism, “Fake it ’til you make it,” so that it would read, “Fake it ’til you become it.” She sees this type of priming as a means of personal empowerment; by setting oneself in a confident and optimistic frame, one can feel freer to express one’s authentic personality and thoughts. We are all capable of a variety of moods, after all, and all we’re really talking about is trying to put ourselves in a certain mental place. We become, in effect, our more confident, less stress-reactive selves.

I have two questions about this area of research: one physiological, and one philosophical.

First, I’m wondering if Dr. Cuddy plans on exploring the long-term effects of such priming on baseline hormone levels. In past blog posts, I’ve cited other stress hormone-related research (esp. Dr. Richard Dienstbier from University of Nebraska) suggesting that people who exercise steadily or build up stress tolerance from repeated exposure actually decrease their long-term baseline levels of cortisol. The chemical receptors in the body actually change shape. These people walk the earth in a manner generally less reactive to stress. I’m wondering if Dr. Cuddy’s experiments would likewise “train-up” the body’s stress response system over the long term.

Second, I wonder whether we are idealizing a certain state of being. We are coming very close to saying that there exists a more dominant, outgoing, ideal version of ourselves to which we should always aspire. I come back to Susan Cain’s book Quiet, which is the first I know of to suggest that if you feel like an imposter whose opinions aren’t welcome, you are not the problem. She specifically takes Ivy League business institutions to task for fostering an environment where only extroverts can thrive, environments that suggest if you are quiet and bookish then you don’t belong. This results, she points out, in an institutional tendency to take the loudest ideas rather than the best.

I’m not sure how I feel about telling those who feel out of place in such an environment that they need to “fake it” until they become something else, something better. When Professor Cuddy talks about her intimidating period at Princeton, I could argue that there was more wrong with Princeton than with her. Sometimes there is a fine line between coming out of one’s shell, and being forced to behave against one’s own temperament because the environment demands it.

I’m aware this could come across as a differentiation without a difference. Dr. Cuddy’s advice comes from a benign place. No one wants to feel, as she did, that they are an imposter in a place they don’t belong. All of us want to do well in job interviews, and under circumstances where we are judged for our poise and daring. We all can use good advice on how to cope in such situations and gain some fundamental confidence. At the same time, I hope we also stop for a moment and reflect that sometimes the environment – the expectation – needs more fixing than does the person.

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  1. November 1, 2012 at 5:38 PM

    Well it sounds like an interesting way to help combat stress at least – worth trying! :)

  2. November 1, 2012 at 9:16 PM

    thanks so much for blogging this! hope you don’t mind, but i’ll be reblogging it too on our psych blog!! credits to you of course! cheers!

  3. November 26, 2012 at 10:48 PM

    Thank you for posting this. That’s often what I wonder when I get fed that line. I wonder why I always have to fake being an extrovert, why aren’t they ever the ones to compromise.

    I know it’s how the world works, the louder you shout and bully, but still nice to see someone else is wondering if the problem is with the other side.

    (It will come as no shock that I very much enjoyed Quiet.)

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