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A TED talk on "power poses" got 25 million views — even though the evidence is flimsy

Power posing — made famous by TED — may not withstand scientific scrutiny.
Power posing — made famous by TED — may not withstand scientific scrutiny.
Sergey Nivens/Shutterstock

Yesterday, over dinner, a friend asked me whether a recent difficult conversation benefited from a pre-talk "power pose."

She was referring to this much-hyped TED talk by psychologist and researcher Amy Cuddy, who suggests that taking a Wonder Woman–like stance before a tough negotiation or high-stakes meeting "can significantly change the outcomes of your life."

According to Cuddy, standing arms akimbo and legs spread for a few minutes before an important meeting boosts your confidence and risk tolerance, improves how others perceive you, and even measurably alters the testosterone and cortisol levels in your brain.

"Your body language shapes what you are": the famous power pose TED talk. (TED)

"It did nothing for me," I said. "I totally reverted to type, even apologizing at the end for raising the issue."

Now, it seems, scientists are also skeptical. A closer examination of the evidence reveals that power posing — and all of its amazing claims — stands on some shaky evidentiary ground.

While Cuddy's video has been viewed more than 25 million times, one of the key studies that underpinned it involved only 42 participants. That's a very small sample — so it may come as no surprise that when researchers from the University of Zurich, Stockholm School of Economics, and Dartmouth College tried to replicate the findings, their experiment mostly failed.

Their follow-up replication study involved 200 participants, and the researchers discovered that while many self-reported feeling more powerful, those subjective reports weren't backed up by more objective criteria.

"Using a much larger sample size but similar procedures as [the Cuddy study] did," the researchers write, "we failed to confirm an effect of power posing on testosterone, cortisol, and financial risk taking. We did find that power posing affected self-reported feelings of power; however, this did not yield behavioral effects."

So they called for more research, concluding, "While it is certainly plausible that power-posing effects generally arise only under some specific conditions — and our study failed to include one or two of these — it is far from clear from the literature what these conditions are."

Some observers pointed out that the differences between the methods in the original study and the replication study could have altered the results. In a response to the replication, Cuddy and her co-investigators wondered the same, doing a review of all the literature on power posing, including explaining why various studies may or may not have shown an effect. Much of the research suggests power posing works, they pointed out.

But as the bloggers at Data Colada note, selective reporting may have played a role in biasing the literature. In other words, negative studies — which find power posing has no effect — aren't published, and so only positive results see the light of day.

So continue to power pose if it makes you feel good — just don't call it scientific.

(h/t Data Colada)