We’re all interested in body language. Body language is non verbal communication and social scientists have spent a lot of time looking at the effects of our body language, or other people’s body language, on judgements. We make sweeping judgements and inferences from body language. And those judgements can predict really meaningful life outcomes like who we hire or promote, who we ask out on a date. For example, Nalini Ambady, a researcher at Tufts University, shows that when people watch 30-second soundless clips of real physician-patient interactions, their judgements of the physician’s niceness predict whether or not that physician will be sued. Body language is really important and affects how we judge others, how they judge us and what the outcomes are. We tend to forget the other audience that’s influenced by our nonverbals, and that’s ourselves.
I am especially interested in nonverbal expressions of power and dominance. In the animal kingdom non verbal expressions of power and dominance involve expanding to make yourself seem bigger and therefore more powerful, and humans do the same thing. However, when we feel powerless we do the exact opposite and close up and make ourselves small.
In the MBA classroom the students exhibit a whole range of power nonverbals. I noticed that women were more likely to exhibit powerlessness than men but it also seemed to be related to the extent to which the students were participating, and how well they were participating. And this is really important in the MBA classroom, because participation counts for half the grade. But is it possible that we could get people to fake it and would it lead them to participate more and improve their grades?
If you pretend to be powerful you’re more likely to feel powerful. Our bodies have the ability to change our minds just as our minds have the ability to change our bodies. There are a lot of differences between powerful and powerless people. Physiologically, there also are differences on two key hormones: testosterone, which is the dominance hormone, and cortisol, which is the stress hormone. In an experiment we found people’s hormones and stress levels changed according to their pose. So it seems that our nonverbals do govern how we think and feel about ourselves, so it’s not just others, but it’s also ourselves. Our bodies do change our minds.
This is the idea of “fake it till you make it”. But what if we don’t want to feel fake or like an imposter? I had an experience of this, I was in a car accident when I was 19 and my brain was damaged and I lost IQ points and had to leave college. But after 4 years of work I managed to graduate and get into Princeton where Susan Fiske took me on. The day before I told her I wanted to quit and I wasn’t supposed to be there and she said that I can’t because she took a chance on me and I’ve got to fake it until I am able to do it, no matter how hard that is.
Years later when a student came to me at Harvard struggling, I gave her the same advice and saw her transform and that’s when I realised I had faked it until I had become it, and I no longer feel like that.
In conclusion, small tweaks can lead to big changes. You can configure your brain to cope best with any given situation. Try power posing and share the science. Share it with the people who are powerless and need it most as it can significantly change the outcomes of their lives.
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This talk has been summarised by Robyn Darbyshire