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Power poses: It was such a nice idea but it  cannot be replicated (so far)

Friday, December 16, 2016
posted by Douglas Keene

Last week the Shark Tank television show was apparently shown during a time my DVR was trying to record another show for me. As I watched it, I was amused to see a couple of entrepreneurs whispering to each other to do “power poses” before they pitched to the shark-investors.

I was amused, because I’d just read the Chronicle of Higher Education’s article on new research that was unable to replicate the benefits of power posing in terms of performance. The idea (which we’ve blogged about here in the past) catapulted Amy Cuddy to the second most watched TED Talk of all time (almost 38M views at this writing) has become so mainstream her work is even cited in this webpage on doing the most perfect Shark Tank presentation!

The Chronicle article is hard on her ideas and refers to the power pose as eminently “clickable” and seems to deride Cuddy for being an “Ivy League professor” . They go on to say that while Cuddy personally became a celebrity (calling power posing a “free, low-tech, life hack”), the actual research article was crumbling with other teams failing to replicate the finding that power poses lead to hormonal changes. Even her co-author (Dana Carney) said (in a fairly unprecedented move) that she didn’t think the research effects were real—not just once, but at least twice—both on her personal website and in a story broadcast on NPR.

Bartlett, the Chronicle writer, says this story is a sign of how research used to be practiced (referencing the failures to replicate many of social psychology’s most popular findings) and perhaps a sign of how things are changing for the better (with Dana Carney’s disavowal of the results).

As you might expect, Amy Cuddy has responded to criticisms and expressed “concern about the tenor” of the discussion and that the criticisms could have a “chilling effect on science”. Some other well-known psychologists have agreed with her (questioning whether the criticism would be as vicious if Cuddy were a male researcher) and other well-known psychologists have stood with her detractors. Even officials at TED have added the following disclaimer (displayed in bold font) to the video description on their site:

Body language affects how others see us, but it may also change how we see ourselves. Social psychologist Amy Cuddy shows how “power posing” — standing in a posture of confidence, even when we don’t feel confident — can affect testosterone and cortisol levels in the brain, and might even have an impact on our chances for success. (Note: Some of the findings presented in this talk have been referenced in an ongoing debate among social scientists about robustness and reproducibility. Read Amy Cuddy’s response under “Learn more” below.)

It is a dilemma for blogs like this who follow emerging research in social psychology. But, know this: there was research, there was a peer-reviewed and approved paper published, and there is an ongoing controversy that has apparently gotten both personal and nasty.

Yet, as the Chronicle article points out, “power posing gains enthusiastic new adherents every day. [snip] Some people do find it inspiring. Besides, we are not talking about a cure for cancer here. Why does it matter if people stand like Wonder Woman in front of the mirror for two minutes every morning? Really, what is the harm?” [Here’s a video of surgeons using the pose prior to doing brain surgery on the Grey’s Anatomy television show.]

Bartlett, T. (2016). Power Poser: When big ideas go bad. Chronicle of Higher Education. (December 4)

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