A Critical Commentary On Amy Cuddy’s Power Posing
Steven Stanton, Department of Psychology and Neuroscience, Duke University, published a report with respect to Carney, Cuddy and Yap’s (2010) paper “Power Posing: Brief Nonverbal Displays Affect Neuroendocrine Levels and Risk Tolerance.”
In the paper he discusses various issues related to the paper and its conclusions. He specifically calls into question the validity that women benefit from power posing in the same way as men mirroring my own assertions on gender differences with respect to dominance and submission.
If you are not familiar with the study it was conducted in 2010 and widely disseminated by Amy Cuddy in a TED talk. It had reached over a million views becoming one of the most popular talks ever hosted on the platform.
In the study, Carney et al. (2010) randomly assigned participants to a high-power group or a low-power group in which they held a ‘power pose’ consisting of a slumped posture or erect posture for 1 minute continuously. Measures of the stress hormone cortisol and dominance hormone testosterone were collected through saliva both before and after the power pose.
The study found that participant’s levels of testosterone increased in the group carrying the high-power pose while cortisol simultaneously decreased. In the low-power pose group, on the other hand, testosterone decreased.
This is an important finding as it says that a simple posture which can be done at any time, affects our hormone functioning. If it holds true, it can even predict or affect future outcomes on dominance competitions such as a job interview or physical competition such as sport which Cuddy has been enthusiastic about perpetuating.
However, as Stanton points out, there are several factors that must be considered for the results to be trusted.
Gender And Testosterone
Previous studies have shown testosterone to increase after dominance competitions. Specifically testosterone has been generally shown to rise after victory and fall after defeat – but only in men. Stanton himself has conducted one such study.
However, these studies are varied and haven’t always shown the predicted trend.
In each case though, women have not responded by boosting testosterone to winning or losing contests. However, one study has challenged the conclusion but it has yet to be replicated.
“The commonly observed gender difference in testosterone responses to dominance situations,” says Stanton, “is likely due to the different source glands for testosterone in men and women. In men, the vast majority of testosterone comes from the testes (and the adrenal glands to a lesser extent). In women, testosterone is principally released by the adrenal glands (and the ovaries to a lesser extent).”
Thus, the source of the testosterone in men and women makes it unlikely that men and women have symmetrical responses with respect to the hormones.
Collapsing Over Gender
When the data was analyzed by Carney et al. (2010) the data for men and women were grouped together. This nullified the effects of gender making it impossible to verify if the trend occurred in both men and women, or supports prior findings demonstrating the male gender effect.
This, says Stanton, violates the primary assumption of statistics by making raw testosterone from pre- and post-power-posing as both the dependent and independent variable with all subjects included.
The study also, as Stanton explains, eliminated a high testosterone male who Carney et al. (2010) reported as being on outlier. However, he was determined to be an outlier against all the testosterone levels combined rather than his levels as compared to the level of other men. It is known that men have much higher base levels of testosterone. In most cases it is found to be 3-7 times higher. This may make the levels of most men to be outliers in a sample which includes both men and women, when in fact, none of the men might be outliers within their own sex.
Stanton says that an equally high outlier for women might fail to be excluded as she would fall within the normal range when compared to the average for all men and women combined. Likewise, a man with an extremely low level of testosterone might also go unnoticed as an outlier, as he would be compared to a much lower combined range for which women were included.
Stanton also pointed out that while Carney et al. (2010) reported that “participant sex was included as a covariate in all analyses” they failed to report whether or not sex accountant for any of the variance in the analyses. This, says Stanton “leaves
open the possibility that the effects are driven principally by one sex, or that the sexes might have exhibited divergent patterns of testosterone response.”
In summary, Stanton correctly points out that Carney et al. (2010) do not report of the mean testosterone levels separately for men and women. This makes it impossible to measure the real change in overall testosterone.
While Carney et al. (2010) have shown posture to affect endocrine response via raise testosterone, the experiment has not yet been repeated, and given the challenges made to its methodology, one should be cautious.
I have located additional studies which contradict the findings of Carney et al. (2010) with respect to gender and power.
1. When men make a fist, they feel more power, but when women do, they do not show the same effect (Scubert et al. 2009).
2. When men stand erect, they rate performance better and go on to perform better on future tasks. When women stand erect, they rate their performance worse and go on to perform worse. When women slump, however, they do better and feel better (Roberts and Sander, 2009).
3. Higher levels of estrogen in women are positive linked to feelings of power. Women taking oral contraceptives have lower estrogen and lower feelings of power. Also, women in close dating relationships also have lower power activation (Stanton, 2009).
Call For More Research
The research on gender and nonverbal communication is new and requires more focus before we can assume that men and women both react the same when it comes to dominance displays.
I content, that in the future, research may find that the source of power and confidence in women comes, not from dominance postures like men, but from submissive postures and as Stanton describes higher levels of estrogen rather than testosterone.
I also tend to believe that estrogen will be found to be the key marker for dominance in women as well as their source of overall confidence. Perhaps in future, a study will use submissive postures and measure the endocrine reaction in women with respect to estrogen and find a relevant boost from submitting as well as more positive self evaluation.
This, I contest, is how nature programmed the sexes.
Stanton, Steven J. The Essential Implications of Gender in Human Behavioral Endocrinology Studies. Frontiers in Behavioral Neuroscience. 2011. 5(9): 1-3. doi: 10.3389/fnbeh.2011.00009
Archer, J. (2006). Testosterone and human aggression: an evaluation of the challenge hypothesis. Neurosci. Biobehav. Rev. 30, 319–345.
Mazur, A., and Booth, A. (1998). Testosterone and dominance in men. Behav. Brain Sci. 21, 353–363; discussion 363–397.
Oliveira, T., Gouveia, M. J., and Oliveira, R. F. (2009). Testosterone responsiveness to winning and losing experiences in female soccer players. Psychoneuroendocrinology 34, 1056–1064.
Schubert, Thomas W. and Sander L. Koole. The Embodied Self: Making A Fist Enhances Men’s Power-Related Self-Conceptions. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology. 2009; 45: 828–834.
Stanton, S. J., and Schultheiss, O. C. (2007). Basal and dynamic relationships between implicit power motivation and estradiol in women. Horm. Behav. 52, 571–580.
Stanton, Steven J. and Robin S. Edelstein. The Physiology of Women’s Power Motive: Implicit Power Motivation is Positively Associated With Estradiol Levels in Women.
Journal of Research in Personality. 2009. 43: 1109-1113.
Roberts, Tomi-Ann and Yousef Arefi-Afshar. Not All Who Stand Tall Are Proud: Gender Differences in the Proprioceptive Effects of Upright Posture. Cognition and Emtion. 2007. 21(4):714-727.
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