You can probably remember a parent or teacher urging you to sit and stand up straight. Depending on the context, there was probably some implication that you would become a better student, athlete, or leader of the free world if you would just exhibit proper posture. It turns out that your crazy Aunt Kitty may have actually been on to something.
The Roller Coaster Ride for Power Posing
Since it is the second-most-watched TED talk of all time, you might have seen Amy Cuddy’s talk about “power posing.” A social psychologist, Cuddy and her team presented persuasive evidence that taking what they called “power poses” could change your feelings of competency and confidence, as well as how others rate you on these characteristics. What made the study so compelling was how these self-reported feelings correlated with physical changes in the subject’s body chemistry. Testosterone (associated with confidence and aggression) went up; cortisol (associated with stress) went down. Almost overnight, Cuddy became a sought-after author, speaker, and consultant. Her research was quoted in all kinds of training programs, and people started using her poses to pass exams, ace job interviews and close deals. You even started seeing fellow TED speakers striking her poses.
Amy Cuddy, striking one of the “power poses.”
Then the doubts started coming. Fellow scientists tried to replicate Cuddy’s results and had trouble getting the same results in similar studies. A new technique for evaluating the likelihood of experimental results, the p-curve, was applied to Cuddy’s study and raised significant concerns. Suddenly, a slew of articles were being written “disproving” her results.
I love it when scientists duke it out like this!
In her response, Cuddy analyzed the p-curve analysis and found that the reviewers were using an older version of her study.
Vindicated! And power posing is back. Even Forbes magazine hailed the comeback.
While this chain of events has great financial significance for Dr. Cuddy, and potentially great personal significance to the many people who adopted her methods and credit their success to striking power poses, I’m more interested in how her work relates to a recent discovery that explores the connection between posture and math performance, something I’ll call “The Posture Effect.”
Sitting Up Straighter May Help You Do Better At Math
A recent study at San Francisco State University investigated how posture (sitting up straight or slumping over the desk) affected the confidence and performance of 125 college students when taking a math test. They were asked to rate their anxiety in taking math tests at the start of the study, then asked to take the test in a given position. Among the participants, 56.4% reported that it was easier to perform math in the upright position. It is worth noting that Cuddy’s work, among others, is cited in the study to establish the basis for their investigation.
Images from Do Better in Math: How Your Body Posture May Change Stereotype Threat Response
What can we conclude from this study?
Just as with any other study, this one must be validated through the scientific method. Others will run similar experiments, scrutinize the original results, and debate the validity of the conclusions. That is what is supposed to happen in science. We don’t believe something just because it is published in a journal. I know it seems like a quaint idea now, where “alternative facts” are recognized as fact and the latest tweet or Facebook rant must be true, just because you want it to be.
It may very well be reasonable to extend these results to other types of performance, particularly those which have some connection to or dependence on math and logic. Is your accountant going to do a better job on your taxes if she sits up straight? Maybe. Will you make a better decision in buying a car if you exhibit excellent posture during the negotiations with the salesperson? Who knows? It is tempting to speculate, and that speculation could very well be the inspiration for a follow-up study.
As learning professionals, we might want to encourage our learners to sit up straight during any task, maybe even strike a power pose when they want to perform with competence and confidence. But there is another lesson here.
While I’m probably going to start encouraging my learners to sit up straight to enhance learning and performance, my real takeaway is elsewhere.
I keep thinking of how Amy Cuddy weathered the criticism and persevered, defending her work with math and logic. She didn’t rail at her critics for creating “fake news,” or call the journals that published critiques of her work “enemies of the people.” She just put her head down and looked for more evidence. And she found it.
When the San Francisco team wanted to find ways to help students overcome anxiety and perform better at math, they came across Cuddy’s work on how chemical changes produced by certain physical stances might change the way the brain works under pressure. They found a limited set of circumstances where changing your posture appears to change the way your brain performs. Their conclusions may end up being extrapolated well beyond the original purpose of the study in the popular press.
Whether the nearly inevitable popularization of the San Francisco study is a good or regrettable outcome is yet to be decided, but I take one thing away from reading this study: Applying the neurosciences to education works. It works today. We need look no farther than this latest example.
I look forward to the next one and the next, and the one after that.