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Change your body, change your mind

One likes to draw inferences from others’ body language, but what about one’s own? Cuddy, a social psychologist from Harvard, offers some insights

October 18, 2012 08:23 pm | Updated November 22, 2021 06:54 pm IST

“We’re really fascinated with body language and we’re particularly interested in other people’s body language... when we think about nonverbal behaviour or body language, we think about communication. When we think about communication, we think about interactions. So what is your body language communicating to me? What’s mine communicating to you?... and we make sweeping judgements and inferences from body language. So when we think of nonverbal, we think of how we judge others, how others judge us and what are the outcomes. We tend to forget, though, the other audience that’s influenced by our nonverbal, and that’s ourselves,” says Cuddy and goes on to request the audience to do a body audit before going on with her talk.

What is a body audit? “…what you are doing with your body. How many of you are sort of making yourselves smaller. Maybe you are hunching, crossing your legs, maybe wrapping your ankles. Sometimes we hold onto to our arms, sometimes we spread out,” says Cuddy as she draws attention to the manner in which you are sitting and suggests that by tweaking our postures we may actually be able to change our life and the outcomes we face. Cuddy is a social psychologist at Harvard and says that studying prejudice and teaching at a competitive school, she was naturally drawn into observing nonverbal expressions of power. What are the nonverbal expressions of power and dominance?

Cuddy answers that whether we talk of the animal world or the human the first sign of power is expanding the human body. “You make yourself big, you stretch out, you take up space, you’re basically opening up. It is done both when there is power sort of chronically and also when a person is feeling powerful in the moment.” As Cuddy says this she shows pictures of primates broadening their chest. She also shows pictures of how athletes throw up their arms at the finishing line when they win. It is significant when she adds that whether a person can see or is congenitally blind, the expression of power means expanding the physical self.

“What do we do when we feel powerless? We do exactly the opposite. We close up. We wrap ourselves up. We make ourselves small. We don’t want to bump into the person next to us,” says Cuddy and adds that we complement each other in power behaviours. That is to say, if someone behaves powerfully, we tend to behave powerless in our body language. And Cuddy says that women tend to feel less powerful most of the times. One classic body posture of the powerless apart from contracting into the self is holding the neck. That is the worst posture in terms of feeling powerless... that shows a craving for security.

The core of the talk is that by faking a posture, you may actually be able to change the way your brain understands the situation and so end up feeling powerful even when you set out feeling powerless. Cuddy suggests expansion moves and postures before the crucial moment, say that of an interview.

“There are a lot of differences between powerful and powerless people. Psychologically there are differences on two key hormones: testosterone, which is the dominance hormone, and cortisol, which is the stress hormone. High-power alpha males have high testosterone and low cortisol. We decided to bring people together and these people adopted, for two minutes, either high-power poses or low-power poses.” Before and after they underwent a saliva test and the changes in testosterone and cortisol were significant. So, says Cuddy, with two minute posture changes you can influence the outcome of every move of yours. “Our bodies change our minds and our minds can change our behaviour,” says Cuddy as the lesson to stay with us.

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