Assume the Posture of Presence

Assume the Posture of Presence

Illustration Credit: Comfort by Matte Stephens

Our posture not only shapes the way we feel, it shapes our ability to think.

Jamini Kwon, a graduate student at Seoul National University, became interested in studying the body–mind connection after spending several months bedridden with trigeminal neuralgia, a rare medication-induced partial paralysis of the nerve that communicates sensation from your face to your brain. Damage to the facial nerve can cause excruciating pain, even in response to the mildest types of stimulation, such as brushing your teeth and applying makeup. “It hurt so much that I could barely drink water,” she said. “I lost almost thirty pounds.” She also noticed something fundamental: “When I stayed in the bed without moving, I felt tired and depressed all the time.”

But slowly she reacquired some movement and began to very gingerly stand and do things. She returned to painting, a passion that she’d had to abandon. “I usually work on huge paintings, so standing up and expanding my arms was necessary.”

That’s when she noticed something else: Expanding out of her contracted posture not only helped her recover physically, it also aided her psychologically. “For me, this ‘cognitive embodiment’ gave me a life.”

So she conducted experiments on the effects of the powerless positions she had become so accustomed to occupying, comparing them to neutral poses. In her studies, powerless postures significantly undermined people’s persistence and creativity when trying to solve complex problems, and these effects were driven by an increase in self-deprecating thoughts, such as “I am useless” and “I lose confidence easily.”

In other words, powerless poses increased the negative thoughts people had about themselves, which squashed their drive to face challenges and dulled their creativity. People in neutral poses were not ruminating about all their bad qualities; instead, they were thinking about the tasks at hand.

Pablo Brinol, a psychology professor at the Autonomous University of Madrid, along with a team of researchers, performed a similar study. They assigned their subjects to either sit up straight and push out their chests or sit slouched forward with their faces looking at their knees. (Try it!) As they held these postures for a few minutes, they were asked to describe themselves with either three positive traits or three negative traits that would be likely to either help or hurt them in their future professional lives. At the end of the study, after they were told they could relax and resume their normal postures, they completed a questionnaire in which they rated their potential to perform well in future jobs.

The researchers found that the way the students rated themselves depended on their postures when they described their traits. Not only did those in the upright position find it easier to think positive, empowering thoughts about themselves, they also believed more strongly in the traits they listed. The slouchers, on the other hand, weren’t convinced of their positive or negative traits; they struggled even to know who they were.

Other research has shown that people who hold positions of power tend to find it easier to think abstractly—to extract the gist of a message, to integrate information, and to see patterns and relationships among ideas. But the same turns out to be true for people who’ve spent only a couple of minutes in a power pose. Li Huang, who conducted the pose-versus-role studies, also measured effects on thought abstraction, using a perceptual task that requires people to combine elements from fragmented, ambiguous pictures of items and ultimately form a whole picture that integrates the various pieces. As it turned out, power poses outperformed not only powerless poses and powerless roles but also powerful roles: the power posers showed the greatest agility in abstract thinking.

The benefits of being a good abstract thinker may not be obvious, so let me put this into a social-evaluative context—such as a presidential debate, a job interview, or a classroom—in which you are required to listen to and integrate multiple ideas and opinions, some of which you’ve never heard before, and to effectively respond to them. Taking in various divergent chunks of information, extracting their essence, and integrating them in a way that makes sense—quickly—is a fundamental element of presence under pressure. So keep this in mind:

Expanding your body causes you to think about yourself in a positive light and to trust in that self-concept. It also clears your head, making space for creativity, cognitive persistence, and abstract thinking.

Dr. Cuddy is a professor at Harvard Business School and author of the new book Presence (Little, Brown & Company), from which this piece was adapted.

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