Can we use our bodies to positively influence our minds? Harvard professor and best-selling author Amy Cuddy has captured attention worldwide with her research into the ways that we create and perpetuate our self-image — and her exploration of habits that can help us feel better about ourselves. Beth Taska, 24 Hour Fitness’ Executive Vice President of Human Potential, spoke to Cuddy about the concepts in her latest book, “ Presence: Bringing Your Boldest Self to Your Biggest Challenges.”
Beth Taska (BT): Your book dives deeply into our bodies as being mechanisms to influence our psychology — for example, what you describe as “ expansive” postures and how this can lead us to be more confident. What has your research shown about the impact of physical change on our mental state, and on others’ perceptions of us?
Amy Cuddy (AC): The most important finding is that for a variety of reasons, expansive postures — done alone, for ourselves — provide feedback within our own brains. We’re signaling we have power, we’re confident, we’re strong. Just as smiling makes us happier, more expansive postures make us feel more confident. People think about what they do when they feel powerful — how their bodies change to express a feeling…But what’s surprising is that on a “ down” day, you could stand up straighter and pull your shoulders back, open up your limbs [and feel better]. Our biggest challenge is to change our emotions, and we go to great lengths to do that in ways that can be unhealthy — but how cool is it that there’s something simpler?
We think about mind-body connections, but not the body-mind connection…It’s hard for our minds to change our bodies or our minds — but our bodies are pretty good at changing the way we feel. Exercise does this all the time. Sometimes it really is that movement is so hardwired with feeling strong and powerful that it makes us feel better.
BT: We crave immediate results. This is what’s interesting about being aware of what our posture and even our breathing are doing to us. We know we have to put in hours of working out for the body to change the body; but the body’s power to change the mind is almost immediate.
AC: Yes, the body changes the mind right away. Making a physical adjustment does not change the outcome of a situation right away, but it might influence it. For example, if you stand straighter you might feel a little more [emotionally] comfortable — this might impact the outcome [of a conversation] or it might not, but over time, it’s likely to.
BT: In “ Presence,” you describe “ power poses” that make us feel stronger. Do you think that these poses are important for us to use with others, so that they may see us as stronger?
AC: While I explore the phenomenon of power poses, the point is that they can be practiced privately to develop a sense of personal power — accessing the best in ourselves — not to intimidate others for social power. Confidence is not to be confused with dominance, nor is personal power to be confused with social power. My primary concern is women being too powerless in their postures. Mostly people hold themselves in positions that are too contracting, and it’s a learned behavior. For example, women wrap their limbs, play with their jewelry and their hair. I’ve done a lot of work in this area, and I’ve found that women are so vigilant that they’re working too hard to manage their impression upon others, when what matters most is the impression they are making upon themselves. There’s a point where you may decide it’s not fair, and you’re going to continue to work to change [others’ impression of you], but you recognize it’s not entirely up to you. Then, you’re in a position to do what you can, right now. That was my motivation to develop the tools I describe in the book — such as power poses: to feel equipped to deal with unfair challenges.
BT: In “ Presence,” you also explore the biochemistry and behaviors of confident people, including their decreased awareness of others. What do you make of this?
AC: One of the most interesting things is that high testosterone and lower cortisol are physiological characteristics present with not just power, but the combination of power and leadership. For example, female athletes who were seen as better leaders were described as inspiring teammates, possessing a sense of what the team needs, having a positive effect on team morale, making personal sacrifices, behaving in a way that’s consistent, fair and authentic. Those are qualities you’d want in a leader, and to be able to do those things, you have to have good self-awareness. So a key takeaway of the book is that to connect, you have to bring your true self, because it makes people comfortable bringing their true selves. People don’t respond well to people who aren’t authentic. Authenticity requires vulnerability.
BT: Have you encountered skepticism about your findings, and what’s your response?
AC: This area of research is high-profile, and it’s only grown since the work I did in 2013. It’s encouraging that people are trying to advance these studies, and when they get different results, that’s an opportunity to work together to understand how to continue to advance the research and gain more insight. That’s true at the level of individual experimentation, as well. One example someone shared with me was about a colleague who had a student practice power poses before he gave a speech. He was very nervous about the speech and felt even worse while he was giving it. He’d allowed his instructor to videotape his speech, and when they watched it, she realized he wasn’t breathing throughout his speech — and he acknowledged that he thought he needed to hold his breath to focus on the poses. That story draws attention to the fact that different techniques work for different people. The big takeaway is that the body is affecting the mind, and you have to do what is comfortable for you. We’ve become very body-unaware, and my goal with “ Presence” is to provide some more tools that people might find helpful.