Power Moves – To Display Power Or Submission
Christopher Philip

Submissive body language invites dominant body language in others.

Submissive body language invites dominant body language in others.

Larissa Tiedens and Alison Fragale, Graduate School of Business Standford University conducted research to determine the best recourse given a submissive or dominant counterpart. In their paper “Power Moves: Complementarity in Dominant
and Submissive Nonverbal Behavior” published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology they found that the answer depends.

According to the authors “Simple changes in posture are accompanied by differences in perceived dominance. When people expand themselves and take up a lot of space, they are perceived as dominant, whereas when they constrict themselves and take up little space, they are perceived as submissive.”

They continue “Postural expansion can be achieved by moving one’s limbs out from oneself (as in arms or legs akimbo), and constriction is achieved by drawing the limbs in or crossing them over one’s body and curving the torso inwards.” It is these power moves that communicate the likely status of a person, “because postural expansion occurs more frequently among people who are high status and constriction more frequently among people who are low status.”

What was not known until now was how exactly people respond to others displays. It could be that people respond to others display dominance with dominant displays of their own and respond to submissive behaviors with mutual submission – postural mimicry. Alternatively, it is possible that a person might respond to dominant and submissive behaviors with contrasting behaviors. Dominant displays could invite submissive responses and submissive displays could invite dominant behavior. In this case what is produced is complementary postures.

The Current Study

In the first study, subjects interacted with a confederate displaying one of two conditions. Either they were dominant through postural expansion or submissive through postural contraction. In most cases the subject decreased their postural stance when presented with a dominant confederate and increased their postural stance when presented with a submissive confederate. More than this, those who displayed complimenting (opposite) responses tended to report liking them better than those who mimicked. In the second study, posture was manipulated. This time, the postures where either mimicked or complimentary. Again, they found that complimentary postures increased liking.

What is interesting about the study is that much is known about mirroring or mimicking. We know from various studies that likeness produces liking. When people mirror one another, they tend to find them more appealing because they remind them of their sameness. However, the results of this study prove otherwise.

According to the authors “Human postural expansion and constriction is reminiscent of the dominance displays in other species.” This is no different that nonhuman primates such as chimpanzees. Their hair stands on end and they hold their arms and legs extended to appear larger. This elicits submissive displays from others. “Chimps observing a dominant display constricted themselves and made themselves appear as small as possible. They bowed low to the ground with their limbs pulled in.”

In animals, and people it seems, dominance is met with submission. Presumably this produces more peaceful relations. We might take a page from war posturing. War isn’t the sort of thing that happens spontaneously. First we have posturing. Soon, one country is testing war missiles – thumping its chest. Should the other not heed the dominance display and instead present with its own expansive postures, then war breaks out.

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The same goes for animals. “On occasions where dominant displays were responded to with dominant displays, it usually marked the beginning of a long period of sometimes quite violent conflict. Nonetheless, we observed that quickly and automatically people become situated in such a way as to suggest a hierarchically differentiated relationship.”

The results suggest that when people respond to dominance with submissiveness
and submissiveness with dominance there is greater comfort and liking. However, when dominance is met with dominance or submissiveness with submissiveness, there is less liking between the interaction partners and the interaction is less comfortable overall.

These patterns suggest that in the short term, going along with a hierarchical configuration can be more comfortable than fighting it. Indeed, the discomfort that happens as a consequence of two people having the same posture may be one reason that people are likely to complement rather than mimic dominant and submissive postural stances.

The study shows just how easily people can slip into a status hierarchy and how people negotiate status positions in relationships where no prior hierarchy exists. When we meet new people, which happens frequently, people quickly and easily decide who is the dominant and who is the submissive. Contrary to original beliefs, mimicry is not the universal default posture. When dominance and submission is concerned, people will tend to compliment each other rather than challenge.

How We Can Use The Study

Postural expansion tends to elicit postural submission.

Postural expansion tends to elicit postural submission.

This has implications for those seeking to maximize their interactions with body language. Should you wish to dominant another, it seems that the first meeting is a great time to establish control and this can be done with simple expansive postures. However, should one face a person who also carries a dominant posture and is unwilling to back down, then it will likely create contempt and negative feelings. Conversely, when interacting with someone displaying submissive postures, using complimentary dominant postures is the best recourse as this puts the other at ease and creates comfort.

I also speculate, though I have no empirical evidence, that kids who suffer from bullying, especially young boys can benefit from expanding their postures when facing aggressive bullies. Yes, this may increase confrontation, but persistent cowering often leads to the very same negative outcomes. I have heard it said that the most positive recollection sufferers from bullying have experienced is standing up to their aggressors – often by using reciprocal physical force. Perhaps the same can be achieved by either preventative nonverbal communication and in other cases, simple lessons to correct postures that invite submissive roles.

This applies to dating as well. A woman who acts submissively is found to be attractive. However, one that cowers will attract or even provoke men in her vicinity to take on the more powerful dominant role. It is the submissive affect that potentially draws out the dominant affect – a cause and effect relationship. This can be particularly troubling in situations where assault takes place. While blaming the victim for their share of the problem isn’t a popular notion, common sense tells us that when we can do something to resolve our own issues, we should. Often it’s not advisable to simple roll with the punches, so to speak by assuming the victim roll. Take the high road is often preached, but it does very little is resolving the power imbalance. Ultimately, we assume that the victim relies on the hope that someone may come in a protect them. In the end, our saviour will simply be another person, aside from us, who will take this dominant role and rob us of our agency.

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Larissa Z. Tiedens and Alison R. Fragale. Power Moves: Complementarity in Dominant
and Submissive Nonverbal Behavior. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. 2003, 84(3): 558–568.

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