If you’ve ever found yourself in need of a confidence boost—say you’re about to give a presentation or ask for a raise, or you’ve just been dumped and are feeling lousy about yourself—you may have heard that you should strike a “power pose.” The term comes from a widely covered 2010 study, which found that taking an expansive posture (think Wonder Woman, with your chin lifted, shoulders back, and hands on hips) can raise testosterone, lower stress hormones, and increase risk-taking behavior.
Since that study, power posing has been the subject of a TED Talk, a self-help book, and many a magazine article. (We admit, we’ve written about it ourselves.) But recent research has begun to question whether standing a certain way actually does anything, psychologically speaking. And now, a new study from the University of Pennsylvania says there’s no evidence that power poses boost testosterone or confidence—and that in some situations, they may do exactly the opposite.
Coren Apicella, Ph.D., an assistant professor of psychology, and Kristopher Smith, a Ph.D. student, were skeptical of the original study’s claims, agreeing with others' critiques that the findings did not take proper “social context” into account. So they attempted to recreate the research using the setting of a competition with winners and losers—a situation that, in humans and animals, tend to naturally affect hormone levels.
"Winners experience a relative increase in testosterone compared to losers,” Apicella explained in a press release. “The evolutionary theory for that is, if you just won a competitive interaction, that testosterone may be motivating you to take on future competition. If you lost, it's saying, 'back off, you don't want to get your butt kicked again.'"
To test the effects of power poses in these situations, Apicella and Smith recruited nearly 250 college-age men to provide saliva samples and then take part in tug-of-war challenges. The winners were declared strong, and the losers weak. All of the men were then asked to strike either a high-, neutral-, or low-power (think hunched over) pose.
While posing, study subjects viewed faces on a computer screen—the same images used in the original study. About 15 minutes later, the researchers took a second saliva.
"We didn't find any support for this idea of embodied cognition," Apicella said, referring to a term that describes aspects of thinking affected by the body, rather than the brain.
And among the “losers” in the study, they made another interesting observation: Those who struck high-power poses actually registered a slight decrease in testosterone, while those in low-power poses had a slight increase.
The researchers didn’t note any behavioral changes to go along with the testosterone drop, and they say these findings need to be replicated before any solid conclusions can be drawn.
“But it’s possible that people might not be able to 'fake it until they make it’ at all,” Smith told Real Simple. “In fact, if you’re not feeling that confident to begin with and you’re not a naturally dominant individual, faking it might actually be detrimental.”
In these cases, a drop in testosterone may be protective: “It may be your body’s way of saying, ‘hey, stop acting like this or you might face consequences,’” he adds.
The new study, published in the journal Hormones and Behavior, isn’t the first to question the effects of power poses in recent years. A large 2015 study failed to replicate the original study’s findings about hormonal changes. And In September, a co-author of the 2010 study published a letter on her blog stating that she no longer believed the power-pose effect is real. She even went as far as discouraging other researchers from studying this topic, writing that it would be “a waste of time and resources.”
Soon after, Harvard researcher Amy Cuddy, PhD—who co-authored the original study and became well known for her TED Talk about power posing—issued a rebuttal to the letter, defending her research. She wrote that her lab has conducted a not-yet-published review of power-posing studies, and found “strong and robust evidence that adopting expansive postures does indeed increase feelings of power.”
In their new paper, however, Apicella and Smith note that the two largest studies on this topic to-date “suggest that the effects are either minimal or strongly influenced by context.”
"As scientists, we care about the truth," Apicella said. "There's so much skepticism about research in general, especially research coming out of social science. Studies like the original power pose can be harmful because they delegitimize good work."
So is it time to scrap the power-posing advice? Smith thinks so. “We’re skeptical that power posing has any effect, and now we know that it may be counter-productive,” he says. “We think that maybe people should try other strategies to help themselves feel confident.” (In that case, may we suggest some belly breathing a la Olympic champ Laurie Hernandez?)