I recently watched an inspirational TED (Technology, Entertainment, & Design) Talk by Harvard social psychologist Dr. Amy Cuddy. It’s definitely worth watching (so I’ve embedded the video at the bottom of this post), but I’ll summarize some of the main points here because these are things from which we can all benefit.
We’ve all heard the phrase, “fake it until you make it” and there’s a certain truth to that. But Dr. Cuddy’s research points to a more powerful twist: “Fake it until you become it.”
As one area of her research, Dr. Cuddy and her team have looked at how body language influences not only the perceptions of others but our perception of ourselves. I’ve run across some of these research findings before, but Dr. Cuddy summarizes them nicely and then points to powerful ways one can capitalize on them. For instance, researchers have demonstrated that if we are forced to fake a smile (e.g., by being asked to hold a pen between our teeth), we actually end up feeling happier. Thus, we not only smile because we are happy, we are happy because we smile.
Effects of Dominant vs. Submissive Body Language
Dr. Cuddy explains that others respond positively or negatively to body language so powerfully that it can overshadow the actual content of the verbal communication. Thus, people can make positive or negative judgments about us (and we about them!) based solely on our body language. For example, if we present our bodies as open, tall, and expansive, this suggests power and confidence to others who tend to perceive us favorably. Conversely, when we make ourselves small (e.g., arms and legs pulled in, hunched over), it is usually perceived as weak, insecure, and submissive. This is seen in the animal kingdom all of the time – with primates, snakes, dogs…you name it.
Our Body Posture Changes Our Hormones
Now, if we stopped there, that would be pretty interesting on it’s own. Dr. Cuddy and her team take it one step further. They looked at how changing body postures (open, strong, expansive vs. pulled in) affected people’s testosterone (hormone associated with power, assertiveness) and cortisol (the “stress” hormone). They found that when people are asked to assume the different body postures for just 2 minutes (and the participants didn’t know why so they were “blind” as to the purpose of the experiment), it significantly affected the hormones of the participants. Thus, strong postures led to significant increases in testosterone from baseline and significant decreases in cortisol while submissive body postures lead to significant decreases in testosterone from baseline and significant increases in cortisol. A mere two minutes of body positioning affects our hormones…and our mood…and thus our minds…and how others perceive us.
Fake It Until You Become It
Dr. Cuddy poignantly addresses the issue of “fake it until you make it” from her own experiences. What if we fake it but then we feel like we don’t belong? That we are charlatans who might be ultimately be revealed as frauds? Her answer to this is that we fake it until we become it. As we purposefully adopt these strong postures, it not only changes the way people perceive and respond to us, it changes the hormones that course through our bodies, our emotions, sense of self, and the way our brains are working. As we make these a habit, the changes become permanent – part of who we are and how others view us.
So, before your next job interview, speech, or social gathering with new people, find a quiet area such as your office cubicle or a bathroom and practice posing in a strong posture for 2 minutes. It might sound contrived but this is a “life hack.” You can reap the big rewards, and ultimately the lasting changes, from such a small, low effort changes. It’s just like how throwing a small rock into a pond can cause a ripple effect that reverberates throughout the entire pond. Even if you are faking it at first, you will ultimately become it if you keep it up. At the end of her TED talk, Dr. Cuddy encourages us to pass along this information to others so we all may benefit. I found her talk so inspiring, I did just that!