Reducing Stress and Increasing Testosterone by Holding Physically Expansive Poses in Front of Others

In their article, to be published in a forthcoming

Psychological Science, Cuddy and coauthors Dana R. Carney and Andy J. Yap of Columbia University detail the results of an experiment in which forty-two male and female participants were randomly assigned to a high- or low-power pose group. No one was told what the study was about; instead, each participant believed it was related to the placement of ECG electrodes above and below his or her heart.

Subjects in the high-power group were manipulated into two expansive poses for one minute each: first, the classic feet on desk, hands behind head; then, standing and leaning on one’s hands over a desk. Those in the low-power group were posed for the time period in two restrictive poses: sitting in a chair with arms held close and hands folded, and standing with arms and legs crossed tightly. Saliva samples taken before and after the posing measured testosterone and cortisol levels. To evaluate risk tolerance, participants were given $2 and told they could roll a die for even odds of winning $4. Finally, participants were asked to indicate how “powerful” and “in charge” they felt on a scale from one to four.

Controlling for subjects’ baseline levels of both hormones, Cuddy and her coauthors found that high-power poses decreased cortisol by about 25 percent and increased testosterone by about 19 percent for both men and women. In contrast, low-power poses increased cortisol about 17 percent and decreased testosterone about 10 percent.

Not surprisingly, high-power posers of both sexes also reported greater feelings of being powerful and in charge. In addition, those in the high-power group were more likely to take the risk of gambling their $2; 86 percent rolled the die in the high-power group as opposed to 60 percent of the low-power posers.

Previous research established that situational role changes can cause shifts in hormone levels. In primate groups, for example, after an alpha male dies the testosterone levels of the animal replacing him go up. The hormonal shifts measured in this experiment show that such changes can be influenced independent of role, situation, or any consciously focused thoughts about power. The physical poses are enough.

Does being told to take such poses explain the effect? Does taking the poses voluntarily in solitude preserve the effect? Or is it only taking the pose in an environment where you’re watched by others?