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The Secret to Feeling More Powerful

We all want to feel powerful. But is there a shortcut we can take to get there? We all know some roles are more powerful than others. Managers, CEOs and leaders usually feel more powerful than their employees or their followers since they are the ones who control promotions, salaries, hiring and firing of their less powerful subordinates.  Studies have shown that when a person feels powerful it activates certain behaviors and cognitions. For example, merely recalling an experience of power made people take more frequent action, make a first offer in negotiations, take more risks, and even think more abstractly.

But there are other factors besides roles that influence how powerful or powerless we feel and consequently influence our behavior.  In my book, [easyazon_link asin=”1451699131″ locale=”US” new_window=”default” nofollow=”default” tag=”achievstrate-20″ add_to_cart=”default” cloaking=”default” localization=”default” popups=”default”]Sensation: The New Science of Physical Intelligence[/easyazon_link] (Atria 2014) I discuss various factors that influence how powerful and confident we feel and two big ones are body language and body postures.

Both animals and humans exhibit powerful and powerless postures by either taking up more space or taking up as little space as possible. For example, the puffer fish pumps water into its stomach and triples in size when defending itself against predators. The jay bird in defending its nest positions itself in a manner that greatly enlarges its body, with feathers erect, wings or tail spread out slightly (or fully in more threatening situations), and bill open. Chimpanzees who wish to convey their dominance raise their arms, push out their chests and stand up in order to appear larger, sway their limbs, and jump up and down repeatedly. Upon encountering a dominant chimpanzee, submissive chimps lower their bodies, constrict themselves, take up less space, and make themselves appear smaller and nonthreatening so as not to provoke an attack.

This is also true for humans. Powerful individuals stand up, spread themselves outward and take as much space as possible. In contrast, a submissive person might sit with head bowed, hands held close to the body, and legs together as do abused children and prisoners of war.  Several studies have shown that people who stand or sit in powerful poses and expand in space are perceived by others as being more powerful. Is it possible however, that our body postures influence not only the way other people see us but the way we ourselves feel?

People who stand or sit in powerful poses and expand in space are perceived by others as being more powerful.

Dana Carney and Andy Yap of Columbia University and Amy Cuddy from Harvard University examined this question. They asked one group of participants to stand and later sit with their hands spread out on the table and legs apart (a powerful position), and asked another group of participants, the  “low-power” group to be seated and later stand with their hands wrapped around their bodies or between their knees, legs close together, limbs closed. The researchers relied on several criteria to quantify how powerful the participants felt.

They found that those who displayed high-power poses reported feeling more powerful, took more risks and gambled more than those in the low power group. Remarkably, this difference was evidenced on a physiological level as well. Those who assumed powerful postures exhibited increased testosterone levels and a decreased level of cortisol. Testosterone is associated with dominant (i.e., powerful) behavior while cortisol is a stress hormone.  People who feel powerful tend to have lower levels of cortisol than those who feel powerless. In other words, simply standing in a powerful (expanded) pose influences how powerful we feel and consequently how we behave and it also reduces stress.

Our body postures influence not only the way other people see us but the way we ourselves feel.

Other studies found that when people assumed powerful positions they took more action and thought more abstractly, behaviors that are associated with a powerful feeling. Interestingly, this happened irrespective of whether they were assigned a powerful or powerless role. What mattered was their posture.

Taken together these findings strongly suggest that powerful feelings and behaviors are ‘embodied,’ and related to our bodily postures. You don’t necessarily need to be in a powerful role in order to feel powerful. Having an expanded posture will do the trick nicely—great news for anyone wishing to boost their confidence in a variety of situations.

By adjusting your posture, movements, and mannerisms, you can not only project power but also boost your feelings of confidence and efficacy. If you are feeling timid or unassertive, standing or sitting in ‘power’ poses can bolster your mental state. If you want to boost your confidence at a job interview, when joining a new group, showing up alone at a party where you don’t know anyone, or anticipating a difficult conversation with your boss or with your employees, just stand in a powerful pose for a few minutes before you enter a room (and if appropriate, during the actual interaction). You can change how you feel about yourself as well as your consequent behavior and the way others perceive you.

You can change how you feel about yourself as well as your consequent behavior and the way others perceive you.

When our parents or our teachers told us to sit up straight, most of us didn’t take them very seriously but it turns out they were right. Sitting or standing straight is not only good for the back it’s good for the soul.


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Copyright: nyul / 123RF Stock Photo

Thalma Lobel, Ph.D., is the author of the book Sensation: the New Science of Physical Intelligence. She is an internationally recognized psychologist and a professor at the School of Psychological Science at Tel Aviv University, where she is director of the child development center. She was the chairperson of the school of psychological sciences, the Dean of students and a member of the executive board of the university. She has been a visiting professor at Harvard, Tufts, the University of California San Diego, and New York University. She divides her time between Tel Aviv and Southern California. Her book “Sensation” shows how our physical sensations influence our decisions, behaviors and emotions without our awareness. It has direct implications to business negotiations and to social interactions.

  • Lyn Boyer

    Thanks for a very well-written and comprehensive discussion of this topic. I was particular pleased that you included the research on changing your body to feel more powerful even if you did not feel powerful before. I believe, in addition to expanding the body, people in powerful positions also need to be aware of and use a variety of body dispositions. I call these the bodies of Stability, Resolution, Connection and Flexibility. Each is different and each, when employed in appropriate settings, allows leaders to make important emotional connections with other that build trust and understanding.

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