Amy Cuddy: 'Fake It 'Til You Become It'

Harvard professor promotes ‘expansive’ postures to tackle intimidation

By Dana Wilkie Jun 20, 2016
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2016 Annual Conference & Exposition
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In layman’s terms, one might call it “psyching yourself up.”

Amy Cuddy puts it this way: “Fake it ’til you become it.” 

Cuddy, a Harvard Business School professor, urged HR professionals at the Society for Human Resource Management 2016 Annual Conference & Exposition to prepare for challenging events—job interviews, stressful presentations, personal confrontations—by practicing “powerful posturing.”

“What kind of body language do we need to make ourselves feel powerful?” asked Cuddy, who spoke June 20 during a general session. “Pay attention to how you hold your body. Are you hunching your shoulders? Or are you holding them back and down? Are you crossing your arms and holding yourself? Or are you taking up your fair share of space? It comes down to this one dimension—expansion vs. contraction.”

More than 15,000 attendees are gathered at the June 19-22 conference in Washington, D.C.

Cuddy, a social psychologist and author of Presence: Bringing Your Boldest Self to Your Biggest Challenges (Little, Brown and Company, 2015), pointed to scientific research, the animal kingdom and her own experiences to make the case that striking a bold, victorious stance can prepare people to face challenging situations—even if they feel intimidated.

“Why is it that in these high-stakes situations that we choke?” she asked. “We feel powerless, which leads to inhibition. You shut down. You are not creative. Your executive functions are undermined. You’re not able to hear what’s going on and engage with it. You feel insecure. You are risk-averse. Your mind is not in a situation where it wants to be open and present. It wants to protect itself and protect you.”

These feelings, Cuddy said, are normal. Just as a threatened animal makes itself small—lies closer to the ground, bows its head, averts its eyes—people who feel threatened tend to cross their arms across their bodies, to slump in a chair, to lower their gaze.

“When we feel bad, we are terrible at talking ourselves off the ledge,” Cuddy said. “We can’t just tell ourselves that we’re personally powerful. That doesn’t work. That is why we need to look at the relationship between power and the physiology of the body.”

Research, she said, shows that using expansive, bold body language can help people overcome fear in work and social interactions. 

In one study, she said, people who were asked to adopt expansive postures for only two minutes demonstrated a 20 percent increase in levels of testosterone, which is associated with confidence, power, assertiveness and risk tolerance. Those who were asked to adopt inhibited postures for two minutes showed a 10 percent decrease in testosterone levels.

Cuddy showed slide after slide of animals who instinctively make themselves appear bigger when they feel threatened or face a challenge: gorillas that puff out and pound their chests; elephants that spread their ears; swans that spread their wings.

She noted that athletes do the same thing: Before and after a routine, gymnasts stand tall, hold their heads high and throw their arms over their heads; New Zealand’s national rugby team performs an ancestral war dance before international matches—spreading their legs wide, flexing their muscles, pounding their knees and shoulders.

“Just as smiling is not just an outcome of happiness but a cause of happiness, powerful posturing is not just an outcome of power, it’s a cause of power—even when you’re not feeling powerful,” Cuddy said.

Cuddy’s research has sometimes focused on women’s body language, especially their tendency during challenging tasks or confrontations to make themselves appear “small.”

When Cuddy’s son was younger, his female classmates would regularly skip, do cartwheels and throw their hands over their heads. When her son, now 14, entered middle school, she said, “all of a sudden [the girls] started wrapping themselves up [with their arms], pulling their sleeves over their hands, making themselves tiny.”

Curious about this phenomenon, Cuddy conducted research that asked 4-year-olds and 6-year-olds to look at 16 pairs of gender-neutral dolls in expansive and contracted poses and to point out which they thought was a boy and which was a girl.

By age 4, 55 percent of the girls and boys thought the dolls displaying expansive body language were boys. By age 6, 85 percent did.

“We are teaching them this,” Cuddy said. “We have tethered expansiveness to masculinity. Let’s teach our daughters to expand. To take up some space. To express their ideas. To show their strength.”

Dana Wilkie is an online editor/manager for SHRM.

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