Why power posing works

A motto I try to live by is: “Look the other way.”

Whenever everyone reaches consensus or heads off in one direction, I remind myself to take a peek over my shoulder and see what the opposite direction offers. I’m not trying to be an intentional contrarian; instead, I’m just building in a “safety check” knowing that as humans we tend to swing back and forth between extremes like a pendulum. By looking the other way, we minimize the pendulum effect and land in a happy medium that is more likely to be correct.

With that idea firmly in place, I want to explore a concept that recently has been lambasted: Power Posing. It seems everyone is piling on as to why this does not work.  

Power posing is a concept largely popularized by Amy Cuddy, thanks to her viral TED talk and book, Presence, on the subject.  The basic gist is that if we make ourselves feel large, like we are occupying more space–think Wonder Woman pose– then we’ll feel more powerful. Our body posture impacts our emotional and psychological state. The feeling of power is the primary effect of power posing. We can take it a step further and look at some of the secondary effects like shifts in the hormonal state (i.e. increase in testosterone and decrease in cortisol) or even performance improvements.

Power posing is an intuitive and feel good concept that results in a message that everyone can get behind: empowerment. The simplicity of the message, combined with the ease of application, has created a widespread phenomenon. Throw in the magic words of “research-backed” or having legitimate science behind it, and it’s no wonder why the idea became all the rage. It’s spread so far, that you even see athletes attempting to calm their pre-race jitters via adopting a power pose in the pre-race warm-up area. The pendulum of power posing swung strongly to the side of widespread embracing.

And then came the backlash. With the publication of a research review and a few studies that failed to find the secondary effects (i.e. increased testosterone or performance/behavior shifts), a barrage of popular press articles lambasting power posing and Cuddy have taken center stage. The idea went from being the media darling to the whipping post in a matter of months. It’s gone so far, that even a co-author on one of the original studies proclaimed that she didn’t think power posing worked.[ The downfall of Power Posing has even been used as a marker of the problems with the entire academic field of Social Psychology.

It makes for a tidy narrative: A message of science gone wrong; the takedown of a scientist “celebrity”; and in the end, the “truth” prevails.

The reality though, is much different.

Improving Performance through Testosterone

I first came across Dave Hamilton’s work when presenting at a conference put on by Major League Soccer’s Seattle Sounders. At the time, Dave worked with USA field hockey, after serving a similar role with British field hockey for the 2012 Olympics. As Dave stood at the lectern presenting his findings, my built-in skepticism started to dissipate into fully attentive embrace of what Dave was explaining.

Dave presented on the relationship between testosterone and performance. He went through a research review showing how subtle shifts in testosterone led to shifts in performance at a wide variety of tasks, from intellectual to athletic. Then to cement the practicality, Hamilton walked us through his own findings with his players. If he could shift there testosterone levels slightly pre-game, their performance would also shift. So Hamilton experimented with pre-game warm-up routines– like whether practicing offense or defense worked best, or whether doing light endurance work or pure sprint work, improved performance. To Dave, Testosterone was just the marker that tended to correlate with performance, what he was actually after was performance itself.

With each “experiment” he found the individuality of the change was significant. Certain players would see their performance boost after performing sprints pre-game, while others needed a different stimulus. (I go further into depth in Peak Performance)

If we dig further into the research on pre-competition routines that influence performance, there are lots of “strange” things that work. Whether we watch game day tape reviewing our successes or failures influences testosterone levels and the next game performance. Watching short video clips that are erotic (yes,  erotic), aggressive, or humorous before a maximum squat exercise all increase testosterone levels and performance. Another study found that whether a coach is positive or negative pre-game influences testosterone levels and game performance in Rugby players. Watching a previous victory had the same effect in a different study. Have an away game and win? Too bad, you get a bigger bump in testosterone if you would have won at home.

I could go on and on. The point is lots of things that boost testosterone, or motivation, or a number of “soft” psychology parameters AND they seem to influence performance at the highest level whether that’s in research-backed studies, or in real-world experience of high-level athletics.

A year later, in research for Peak Performance, Dave summed it up even better when I asked what tended to give athletes a boost: “Do what makes you feel good.” His conclusion was that, if he could put peoples minds and bodies in a place where they were empowered to perform, they would see a boost in performance, and likely one in testosterone too.

At that instant, my mind flipped to another concise phrase I’d read, “Do good, be good.”

These words were written by psychologists Timothy Wilson in his book Strangers to Ourselves. In the book, Wilson explores how our subconscious impacts our lives. And in this particular section, he outlined how we can take advantage of our subconscious to influence our every day lives

Wilson’s research found that one of the ways we come to understand ourselves is by analyzing our behavior. Our subconscious literally analyzes our behaviors then says “hmm,  I just gave a donation to this child in need, I must be a good person!” In other words, our behaviors help to inform the rest of our mind who we actually are. Which led Wilson to the phrase, “do good, be good.” If we act in accordance with how we want to be, eventually our brain will ingrain that, yes, we have to be this type of person because our behaviors show we are. Instead of trying to use our mind to change behaviors, we should change our behaviors, and then our mind will follow.

What Hamilton and Wilson had both found is that our behaviors– whether that’s in performing more giving actions, or in priming ourselves for a game– impact us far more than we previously had imagined.

When you’re standing on the starting line, belief matters.

While some might insist it must be a placebo effect, they fail to realize that life and coaching is partially about expressing a placebo response. The psychology and physiology are deeply intertwined. I could show athletes a picture of a happy face, like has been done in the Psychology research, or I could look them in the eye and tell them they are ready.  Is the effect placebo or real?  It doesn’t really matter.  So long as there is a significant result that holds true after time, then the effect was indeed “real.”

There most likely is a physiological arousal from being told you are ready to go, seeing a smiley face, or standing upright and tall. But there is also a belief effect. A tinge of conscious and subconscious knowledge that you are happier, more determined, more confident, or whatever else you want to look at.

As coaches, our life revolves around belief effects. We’re trying to put the athlete in the right frame of mind to compete and reach their potential. Which brings us back to power poses.

Research has shown that power posing makes you feel empowered. Tons of research. Does it translate to changes in behavior or “performance”? Depends on the study.  But, should that be surprising? Looking an athlete dead in the eye and telling them they are ready works for some, for others, it terrifies them. Giving an athlete a placebo pill to overcome the pain of a recent injury works really well for some, others not so much.

Does power posing give you a bump in testosterone levels? Who knows. That’s up for debate. Over time, science will likely answer that question. But if the end goal—that is, empowerment—is reached, then in practical terms does the mechanism matter?  Does it matter if there was a shift in hormones?

Sure, from a scientific perspective it does, but from an applied perspective it doesn’t. I don’t need to know why interval training works to put it in my training program. It helps create buy-in and helps as a coach, but as an athlete, if it works, I’m doing it.

And that’s where we are with Power Posing. It creates a feeling for most.

We tend to discount ‘feelings’ in hard science. But as we are learning in the world of fatigue, the ‘feeling’ of effort may be what matters most when it comes to competing. Feel better than expected, your body lets loose the reigns and allows you to run a bit faster. Feel worse? We slow down.

If ‘feeling’ matters so much in fatigue and racing performance, why do we discount it in the lead up to performance? Create the feeling empowerment, enjoyment, confidence, or the mindset to take on any challenge, and we have succeeded. We will likely see a boost in performance.

Am I saying deny science and believe what you want?

Of course not. The message I’m sending is to treat all of science like you would your own specialty. Did all of you coaches stop running long runs when a number of studies came out that said long endurance work or high volume was not necessary to improve Vo2max? Did you start doing only Tabata sprints because “science” said they were the ultimate interval workout?

My guess is you didn’t. The reason is simple.  The world isn’t black and white. Things don’t work or not work. There are many shade of grey and nuances that we would rather ignore than address. We are dealing with human beings who are incredibly complex emotional animals.

Of course, we shouldn’t ditch science and simply do what “makes us feel good,” but what we should do is take consideration. Realize that things do not simply work and not work. There are many shades between. Let’s not fall for the same trap of going all in on a concept, to fully rejecting it. We don’t need to chase the swinging pendulum.

Does power posing work?

Following the research, even the critiques found that power posing increases its main effect, a feeling of power. So, in one sense, yes, it likely works. Research says it does: It makes you feel empowered.

So let’s stop with saying it does not work. It does. It makes you feel empowered. The real question is does this feeling lead to anything?

Does it improve performance or testosterone or behavior? I, and you, have no idea.  It likely depends on the situation, individual, and whether or not a feeling of “power” is a limiting factor to your performance.

If we know that power posing increases a feeling of power, then that has to be our starting point. It does something. Does it translate to performance improvement, and in what kinds of individuals?

If I, as a coach, think feeling empowered before a race or performance is going to make you perform better, or shift your pre-race nerves, or even decrease a sense of effort, then you bet I’m going to use it. Will my whole team be standing on a starting line as if they were wonder woman? No. But several individuals who I think need that boost in empowerment so that they are in a better physiological frame of mind to compete certainly will. Individuals, and what they need, matter. And yet, we neglect the individual dynamic so much.

Let me relay a story. I don’t believe in using ice baths for most of the season. I think their value is overblown and they can impair training adaptations. But, you know what? If an athlete comes to me before a race and says “Should I take an ice bath?” I ask, “will it make your legs feel better?” If they respond, yes. Then I’m all for them.

The mind is a powerful thing. Even more powerful when we are concerned with performance, regardless of if that’s a race, a speech or an artistic act.

Does it make you feel better than by all means do it. Why? Well, science (and intuition, long before science determined it) says the feeling of effort matters.

And round and round we go…

As the pendulum swings back and forth on any topic, remember, the answer is usually contextual and somewhere in the middle.

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    1. Sat Ganesha Khalsa on February 3, 2020 at 7:52 am

      could be one of your best!

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