Archive for the ‘Johnstone – Status Transactions’ Category

To Fake It, or Not To Fake It

October 31, 2012 4 comments

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. Read more…


The “Shaken Self”: Self-Confidence and Product Choice

June 30, 2011 2 comments

I’m always excited when science finally catches up with marketing.

M&MsA man walks into a sociologist’s office, and is asked to write a short essay highlighting his healthy life habits. He does so. Afterwards, he’s offered a choice of two small rewards for his work: an apple, or a pack of M&M’s. He makes his choice and leaves.

After that, another man walks into the sociologist’s office, and is asked to write a short essay highlighting his healthy life habits. As he’s about to begin, the sociologist asks him to write it with his non-dominant hand. After he does so, he is offered a choice between an apple or a pack of M&M’s.

This second man, who wrote with his non-dominant hand, is significantly more likely than the first to choose the apple. Why would that be?

A lot of excellent research is starting to emerge dealing with the relationship between “state” self-confidence (short term mental states) and purchasing habits. The study I’ve just referenced came out of Stanford last year. It was published in Advances in Consumer Research by Leilei Gao, S. Christian Wheeler, and Baba Shiv, and talks about the concept of the “shaken self.” Read more…

What Is “Tough”?

December 27, 2010 1 comment

“Toughness” is an adjective that gets thrown around a great deal, particularly in politics. Many public figures go out of their way to associate themselves with “tough,” “independent” stances and hard-line foreign policy, and each successive generation paints themselves tougher than the last. In his time, the first President Bush was the hero of the Gulf War, but in his son’s time, he was the man who didn’t have the stuff to invade Baghdad. Sarah Palin, the conservative “Mama Grizzly,” is one coat of lipstick away from being a pit bull. According to her.

Teddy Roosevelt

Teddy Roosevelt – Tough!

I’m about mid-way through Edmund Morris‘s first volume, The Rise of Theodore Roosevelt. When reading this book, it becomes instantly apparent that modern conservatives who claim Teddy as a role model don’t understand the man. They simply see in their minds the famous painting of Teddy on horseback. They have no conception that, in addition to his adventures as a “Rough Rider,” he was a bookish intellectual, an eastern fop, a naturalist geek, an insufferable elitist of the first degree, a moralist serving the God of noblesse oblige, and most notably an anti-corporate reformer and social progressive. No modern conservative would come within fifty feet of the man were he living today.

But Teddy was tough. He was tough in a way that seems like it’s a class apart from figures of the modern era, save perhaps John McCain‘s imprisonment in North Vietnam. He had a toughness that most of his contemporaries had to look twice to see, because you couldn’t see it at first glance. A spindly, sickly child, he responded by toughening his body through punishing exercise. As a young Assemblyman, he annoyed and cajoled his way to prominence within his party. In his mid-twenties, he lost his young wife and his mother on the same day, and suppressed those emotions so thoroughly that he nearly never spoke of his first wife again. It wasn’t until he exiled himself to the Badlands and shot a Rocky Mountain Grizzly square between the eyes that he felt sufficiently purged to return to his eastern life. Most of us go into metaphorical exile in order to confront demons…Teddy did it literally.

Rick Moranis

Rick Moranis – Not as tough…

Reading some of these passages on Roosevelt makes me realize exactly how little energy and drive I apply to life in comparison to this Irresistible Force of lore. It makes me value the man for his toughness. But it also makes me wonder why I admire this man, but I fail to admire the modern-day brush-clearers and moose hunters who display similar ambition, egotism and stubbornness. I want to distill the virtue of toughness, and separate it away from the posturing and bravado that usually passes for it. I want to be able to separate truly tough people from the many who pretend to be tough. Read more…

Demanding High Status at the Top of a Presentation

October 24, 2010 1 comment

Corporate PresentationsI hear a common complaint about internal company presentations. Internal presentations are apt to be less formal, and therefore audience members commonly to interrupt with questions, tangents, challenges and typing out emails on their Blackberries. Most times its the higher-ranked employees who do this, even though you’d think more senior people would want to set a respectful example.

The reason why is obvious if you understand the Status Transaction: more senior employees carry more status, and therefore feel entitled to distract from your show.

It’s the same reason that people heckle comedians. You’ve gone to all the trouble of creating a “spotlight” of attention in the room, and someone in your audience wants to grab it and put it on them for a while. It’s more than an annoyance; in terms of what’s going on in the room it actually diminishes you and makes you seem smaller than you are.

In fairness, the reason most employees – and high level employees in particular – feel so disposed is that ninety-nine out of every hundred presenters they see waste their time in some way. They plod through slide after tedious slide, dragging their audience through their minutiae without succinct points, message flow, or word efficiency. Therefore most corporate audiences feel no duty to presentation etiquette, and instead prefer to assert themselves over you or tune out.

Next time you have to give an internal presentation to an audience you fear might not stay with you, do this:

Read more…

Five Behaviors That Communicate High or Low Status

October 15, 2010 6 comments

Previously, I have remarked on an area of interpersonal dynamics called the Status Transaction. This concept comes from one of the fathers of improv theatre. It says that humans, just like other pack animals, communicate in subtle behaviors that convey where they stand with regard to each other.  We establish an unconscious structure of deference and social value in order to keep our relations mostly harmonious. As Johnstone remarks, “In the park we’ll notice the ducks squabbling, but not how carefully they keep their distances when they are not.”

This principal is the key link between acting performance, marketing, and social psychology. It is the subtext of human life. It represents the unvarnished, true meaning of people’s communication. It is, either consciously or unconsciously, a crucial factor in honest and authentic acting portrayals, because it factors into a character’s key attitudes. It also factors into how we feel attraction to one another. Also, it has repercussions in group psychology, and therefore also in marketing messaging. People arrange their little worlds in ways that cultivate and communicate status. Status, recognition and validation play a central role in most people’s secret dreams and ideals.

We tend to associate high status with certain favorable traits, like wealth or physical attractiveness. People speculate that correlation came from evolution; in order to survive, we will tend to associate ourselves with those who have means, and signs of healthy DNA. Our conspicuous consumption is an example of a status-driven tendency.


Maximum status gaps make for some of the best comedy


What people may not know is that most status communications are conveyed through ordinary, everyday behavior. Johnstone discovered this through improv exercises. He started with large-gap status differences, like king and butler. He then reversed behaviors so that the butler behaved in a high-status manner, and the king deferring to the butler. And, improv comedy was born.

In real life, most status-communicating behaviors are hard to fake. That’s why we get the creeps when someone who has the appearance of status (e.g. wealth) behaves in a way that seems incongruent. Most people who try and put on a short-term game persona usually fail at it. Their insecurities “peek out” through the cracks.

Based on the search keywords that lead into People-triggers, there are a lot of people searching for a discussion on which behaviors communicate high status, and which communicate low status. Johnstone talks at length about this in his book, Impro, and there are many other status discussions around the blogosphere. One blog that shows a lot of insight into this subject is appropriately named, The Statustician, and I would recommend checking it out for a more in-depth discussion.

So, for your experiments in interaction on stage and in life, here is my list of the top five behaviors that communicate interpersonal status. Read more…

Making Difficult Things Look Effortless

August 27, 2010 4 comments

Historians have finally identified the inventor of “cool.” Back, way back before the Fonz, before James Dean or Brando, before Clark Gable, almost before Columbus even landed, there was the originator of cool: Baldassare Castiglione.

How can you not be cool with a name that rolls off the tongue like that?

Back in the days of the Italian courts of the early Renaissance, writers and artists were rediscovering the Aristotelian notion of the ideal form. When you set about creating something, you aspired to make it as close to the theoretical ideal form as you possibly could. In this way, you could approach perfection.

Baldassare Castiglione, The Originator of Cool – Can’t you tell just by looking at him?

Right about the same time Machiavelli published his work on the ideal form of a ruler, our friend Baldassare published The Book of the Courtier. In it, he laid out the ideal for the new Renaissance Man – the man who could master many diverse talents and areas of expertise. We get the modern idea of the Renaissance Man from Castiglione’s work, just as much as we do from examples of the famous polymaths of the day: Leonardo da Vinci, Leone Battista Alberti, Matteo Ricci and others.

Castiglione thought that it was improper for gentlemen to refine all these talents only to show off at court, and become immodest scene-stealers. In the time of Machiavelli and palace intrigue, influence itself became the coin of the realm. If you were a gentleman of the court, and you wanted to do the most good, you had to influence the royalty to act in virtuous ways. Talent and refinement were useless if they kept you from holding sway over the actions of the court.

So Castiglione coined the term sprezzatura. There is no direct translation, but now we would call it “coolness,” “smoothness,” “intrigue,” or “nonchalance.” The idea behind sprezzatura is that when you exercise your talent in any way – in their case things like poetry, recitation, classical mastery, sports, intellectual gaming, etc. – you do it without any affectation or pretense. You don’t call attention to the effort you put into it and don’t come across as showing off. Read more…

Know Your Audience: The Desires and Insecurities of the 21st Century

August 4, 2010 1 comment

I’ve wanted to write this article for a long time, but it took me finding a brilliant essay called “The Rise of the Caring Industry,” by Ronald W. Dworkin, to fill in the last piece of the puzzle.

Our whole culture and self-image shifted in the 60's. Is it still shifting, and where is it going?

I’m a great fan of the show Mad Men, in part because they portray the seismic societal shifts in the late fifties and early sixties – the rise of the aggressive individualism that ushered in our modern culture. The protagonist of the show, Don Draper, is a very flawed individual but has an excellent sense of where 60’s society is trending, and what people will want as a result.

So I wonder, what conclusions would someone of his excellent understanding of people and culture draw about the self-concept of the 21st century man or woman? How can we lesser observers cultivate a clear vision of society’s dreams and desires, so as to better inform our literature, plays, and messaging?

After reading the essay I mentioned above, I got a handle on a concept that had been eluding me for a while:

Dr. Mark Leary of Duke University has established that our concept of self-esteem is actually a self-perception system, feeding us back an idea of our own value to others. I believe this is one of the chief psychological insights of our time, because it pinpoints the true source of our waxing mass insecurity. We cannot feel secure about our own identity without receiving feedback from others acknowledging our social value.

Enter Dr. Ronald W. Dworkin, an M.D. and Ph.D. who writes on the dangers of society’s over-reliance on psychological care, and psychoactive drugs. He sees the uncontrolled rise in professional psychological care-taking as a result of the “mass loneliness and mass unhappiness” resulting from the societal changes in the Mad Men era. Read more…