By Steve Kelman

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The 'power pose' may be overrated, but civil discourse is essential

Professor Amy Cuddy demonstrating her theory of power posing with a photo of the comic-book superhero Wonder Woman (Image: Wikimedia Commons)

Professor Amy Cuddy demonstrating her theory of "power posing" with a photo of the comic-book superhero Wonder Woman at a 2011 conference. (Image: Wikimedia Commons)

Some 15 years ago I heard a research presentation at the Kennedy School featuring Lara Tiedens, then a young faculty member at Stanford Business School. Tiedens began by showing a gorilla in a sort of king-of-the-jungle stance. She then showed contrasting images of two people, one displaying an expansive posture with arms akimbo, feet wide and body forward, the other contracting and slouching. Those showing an expansive posture felt more powerful and dominant, and behaved more assertively, she said.

(I remember this presentation so clearly after so many years, I think, because it was one of the first PowerPoint presentations I had ever seen that used a lot of visuals rather than limiting itself to text-heavy bullets -- a style that has now spread widely in academia but still has a ways to go in the federal government.)

This posture distinction hit the big time after research by Amy Cuddy and her colleagues at Harvard Business School. Cuddy coined the phrase “power pose” to describe the expansive, confident stance. A 2012 TED talk by Cuddy on the power pose, with 50 million views to date, is the second-most downloaded TED talk ever. One of my daughters tells me that she has practiced the power pose before going into job interviews, and she is clearly not alone.

A recent NextGov post, however, presents academic literature suggesting that the benefits of the power pose are a myth. A commentary by Professor Marcus Crede of Iowa State University, reported in the post, notes that the studies showing a positive impact of the power pose contrasted it with the contractive, slouching pose rather than with a neutral pose. “The overall effect,” the commentary notes, “is largely driven by a negative effect of a contractive pose and not by a positive effect of power posing.” Slouching hurts, in other words, but the power pose doesn’t help.

This example, though interesting, has risen to the level of becoming a subject for this blog post because of what we learn from it about the culture of academic discourse. Professors surely debate each other, often very vigorously, but they argue almost exclusively about evidence: “what does the evidence show?” The ideal is reasoned, fact-based discourse, which we see in Professor Crede’s critique of power posing. The tone is measured and respectful. This is the academic discourse that I as a professor am used to.

The culture of academic discourse, of course, does not always live up to its ideals. There are situations, often classified under the moniker “political correctness,” where academics hesitate to research or even discuss publicly topics where the findings might be unpopular or they might be exposed to harassment (though usually not by other professors). Also, this new critique of Cuddy’s work is not the first time she’s been criticized; a Google search revealed there was a massive campaign against this study by other scholars several years ago. Those critiques were marked by some pretty strong and snarky language, occasioning Cuddy’s departure from the Harvard Business School.

Nonetheless, if one compares the culture of academic discourse with the current state of political and cultural discourse in the United States, where emotions and doxing run rampant, and facts often play a small or no role, it is hard to believe that the adoption of norms more like academic discourse would not constitute a big improvement for our national life.

Posted by Steve Kelman on Oct 08, 2019 at 7:01 AM


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