The Rise and Fall of Power Posing

Amy Cuddy inspired with her power-pose promises to boost confidence and testosterone, but faltered when critics pointed out her research was flawed, serving as a cautionary tale about how to respond when your great idea turns into post-midnight pumpkin.

Amy Cuddy inspired with her power-pose promises to boost confidence and testosterone, but faltered when critics pointed out her research was flawed, serving as a cautionary tale about how to respond when your great idea turns into post-midnight pumpkin.

A 2010 study co-authored by social psychologist Amy Cuddy generated widespread enthusiasm for power posing to give speakers enhanced confidence and an actual metabolic lift. In the years to follow, efforts to replicate Cuddy’s research failed, her co-author distanced herself from the original findings and Cuddy has been subjected to harsh ridicule, especially on social media.

It is a cautionary tale about how an idea can go from godsend to garbage in the virtual blink of an eye, as well as the obligations of propagators of new ideas to talk candidly when the ideas don’t prove out.

The New York Times Magazine published a long article October 18 about Cuddy, her TED talk on power posing that popularized the technique and the acrimonious aftermath following searing criticism from fellow psychologists over her research methodology. The article is long, but well worth reading.

Cuddy became famous for asserting that power poses strengthened confidence and resulted in physiological changes by boosting testosterone levels and lowering stress-related cortisol levels. Many communications consultants, including CFM, added references to power posing into their training sessions. We urged speakers-in-training to amp up by making a “V” with their outstretched arms or plopping their feet on a desk. Trainees, even ones who seemed skeptical, avowed the technique boosted their confidence before speaking.

While “feelings of power” may result, subsequent research using larger samples and more rigorous evaluation didn’t confirm power poses produced any measurable physiological benefits. When critiques of power posing hit social media, Cuddy and her work were savaged. She became the poster child for shoddy science in social psychology.

Cuddy wasn’t alone in being criticized for her research techniques, but her high profile as a speaker and writer made her a convenient pin cushion for the criticism. How Cuddy responded – or, more precisely, didn’t respond – to the criticism is the lesson for others who have a great idea that turns into a post-midnight pumpkin.

When the criticism splashed onto social media, Cuddy mildly defended her research and findings, then more or less stopped talking about power posing. She continues to speak, has written a book and is working on a new one. Her career isn’t over, but she hasn’t cleaned up the messy picture in the background of power posing.

Admitting errors isn’t easy for anyone. In Cuddy’s case, she hasn’t admitted her conclusions were based on what has been shown to be faulty research. After a few power poses, she should.

Even if power poses don’t give speakers a testosterone rush, they do seem to bolster confidence before and during a speech – not a small thing for people with a deathly fear of speaking in front of a crowd. Owning up to this reality would clear the air and encourage speech coaches to keep recommending power poses for timorous speakers. (In our media training, we have and continue to pitch power poses as a confidence-builder, not a metabolic miracle.)

False or misleading claims, whether based on research or not, are common. Too many appear to be intentional. For those claims that are well-intentioned, but wind up with inadequate on inaccurate validation, setting the record straight is the way to go to preserve integrity – for a brand, an organization or an individual.

Power poses don’t harm anyone. They just aren’t the elixir Cuddy extolled. Many false or misleading claims can cause harm and the public should be informed. Whether or not there is any harm to users, failure to admit claims were false or misleading can cause lasting harm to a reputation. A reputation can withstand and even be enhanced by honest admissions, especially when expressed in the larger public interest.

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Gary Conkling is president and co-founder of CFM Strategic Communications, and he leads the firm's PR practice, specializing in crisis communications. He is a former journalist, who later worked on Capitol Hill and represented a major Oregon company. But most importantly, he’s a die-hard Ducks fan. You can reach Gary at garyc@cfmpdx.com and you can follow him on Twitter at @GaryConkling.