Body Over Mind
Although we tend to give our brains all the credit for directing our thoughts, studies suggest that in fact, we use our bodies to think, too. Even seemingly trivial movements and sensations influence how we behave. Reaching upward, for instance, has been shown to make it easier for a person to recall happy memories, while reaching downward draws negative memories to mind. Reclining—a position that physically stifles a "fight or flight" reaction—helps us temper angry emotions. Holding a warm cup of coffee makes us feel more warmly toward others. Perching on a hard chair leads to tougher negotiating. Even fleeting changes in our own facial expressions—some so subtle they're detectable only by recording the electrical impulses in muscle cells—provide crucial feedback to the brain: One study found that subjects who received Botox treatments that blocked their ability to mimic emotional expressions were subsequently poorer at recognizing others' emotions.
And just as our physical experiences influence our memory, feelings, and social judgment, they also seem to dictate how we conceive an abstract concept like power. In a study published last year, psychologists Dana Carney, PhD, and Amy Cuddy, PhD, had their subjects spend two minutes in one of two types of poses—either an open, expansive "power pose" (for example, leaning back in a chair with feet propped up on a desk, fingers laced CEO-style behind the head, elbows out) or in a tight, constricted pose (say, sitting with shoulders hunched, legs together, hands clasped in lap). The people who struck expansive poses reported feeling more powerful than the others did, and went on to make riskier decisions in a subsequent gambling game. Most remarkably, they experienced a measurable physiological shift: Their testosterone (the hormone that, in both men and women, is linked to assertiveness and energy) spiked by 19 percent, while their levels of the stress hormone cortisol fell by 25 percent.
Gruenfeld and her colleagues have likewise found that when people strike a power pose, they perceive themselves as being physically stronger and taller than they really are. Other researchers have discovered that adopting an expansive posture can even increase a person's tolerance for pain.
"The fact that simple poses can have such an impact is extraordinary," says Carney, now a professor in the business school at the University of California Berkeley. "They appear to flip some internal switch, making the world seem better, brighter, easier." Although researchers don't fully understand the psychological and biological processes at work, what's clear, she says, is that the changes are internal. "It seems to be about how you present yourself to others. But it's really about what's going on inside you."
Playing the Part
Like many other species, humans tend to behave in either a dominant or deferential manner—a preference that's determined by some combination of our personality and ingrained expectations about where we belong in the social pecking order (expectations conferred by gender, class, birth order, geographic origin, and so on). It's easy to get stuck in character, perpetually enacting roles we didn't consciously choose. (Picture the overly smiley coffeepot replenisher at work who's also a doormat at home.) But this afternoon, Gruenfeld and her co-teacher, drama instructor Kay Kostopoulos, aim to help us shed the automatic physical habits that go along with those roles.
Kostopoulos starts by leading us through a series of warm-up exercises. At first, the scene is yoga-esque. We step out of our shoes and stand tall, close our eyes, and take deep, slow breaths. But before long, the tempo changes, and Kostopoulos has us jumping up and down, shaking our arms, swinging our hips, blowing raspberries, and making kooky faces, alternately sticking our tongues out and then scrunching up our noses. All the while, we're huffing out husky ha-ha-ha sounds from deep in our bellies. Kostopoulos encourages us to experiment with a deep voice. "You don't want Mary Tyler Moore," she squeaks, then drops her tone an octave: "You want Diane Sawyer."
"Shake off your context," Gruenfeld encourages us. "You're freeing yourself from the way your body reinforces your presumed place in the social hierarchy." And it's true: In this room full of clown-faced, raspberry-blowing business execs, any semblance of hierarchy has evaporated.