Alan Alda is an award-winning actor, writer, and advocate for science communication. Widely known for his roles in M*A*S*H, The West Wing, and as host of Scientific American Frontiers, Alda recently met with Amy Cuddy, the author of Presence, for a Heleo Conversation at the Alda Center for Communicating Science at Stony Brook University. This conversation was recorded for the inaugural episode of Alan’s new web series, Clear + Vivid. Here, Alan and Amy talk about what power does to the human brain and how we can make use of the behavioral approach system to be our most empathetic, authentic selves.
Alan: Your TED Talk is still the second most popular in history, and that’s where I first came in contact with you. I was one of the millions of people who watched your talk. You have no idea what it meant to me. I thought, this is very interesting, does it really work? I was about to go on Science Friday with Ira Flatow, but I was anxious that day. Then I started to get anxious about being anxious which is that horrible death spiral. I went into the men’s room, locked the door, and did the power pose for a couple of minutes and I went on the show. My voice wasn’t perfect, but it was stronger than before.
Amy: Imagine if somebody else had opened the door seeing Alan Alda power posing in the bathroom.
Alan: Yeah, that’s why I locked the door. I didn’t take any chances.
Amy: I hear so many stories about people hiding or standing in bathrooms before job interviews. People even have sent me selfies of themselves in bathrooms standing like Wonder Woman.
Alan: For people who are new to this, what do you mean by the power pose?
Amy: We first started thinking of poses that are associated with dominance and power, starting from what non-human animals do. As the research has evolved, it’s more clear that it’s about expanding versus contracting. It doesn’t have to be a static pose. It could be how much you swing your arms when you walk or do you take long or short strides. Even how quickly or slowly you speak. If you speak slowly, you’re expanding over time, you’re taking up temporal space. When people slow down their speech or take pauses, they feel more powerful.
These postures are expansive, involve the shoulders being open, the limbs away from the body. Versus contracted postures where people are wrapping themselves up, touching their necks, their faces, collapsing inward—that’s associated with powerlessness across the animal kingdom.
Alan: How did you first come to the idea of the power pose?
“I thought, if I could change their body language, would it change the way they felt? Is it not just an expression of how they feel but is it also a cause of how they feel?”
Amy: Watching my students. In Harvard Business School, participation is half your grade, so it really matters, and I’d have these students come to my office hours—they’re really smart, engaged with the material—but in class, they were doing the apologetic hand raise like, “I’m so sorry, but do you mind calling on me?”
I thought, if I could change their body language, would it change the way they felt? Is it not just an expression of how they feel but is it also a cause of how they feel?
Alan: This seems to be tied into the William James quote in your book.
Amy: He says, “I don’t sing because I’m happy. I’m happy because I sing.”
Alan: Right, so there is a progression from the state of your body to the state of your emotions?
Amy: That was the theoretical foundation of this work. I was observing something in the real world but then looking at the literature, seeing, “Oh, people had been talking about this for a long time.”
Alan: Did anybody test it?
Amy: People had tested what we call facial feedback which is the idea that when you make a facial expression, it’s not just an expression of how you feel but it could also be a cause of how you feel. This was a little bit different because it’s below-the-neck posture.
Alan: You were studying the hormonal changes in the body.
Amy: That’s one of the things that we look at. I want to note, we’re at the tip of the iceberg with that research so we’re still learning more about it. We’ve seen it replicate sometimes and not other times.
The key for us was that expanding your body will make you feel more confident and powerful. If that’s the end of the story, I would be very happy with that. Now we’re getting into trying to understand, “what is the mechanism, why is that happening?”
One of the hypotheses was that it might have to do with hormones. When you look at alphas in primate hierarchies, you see a hormone profile that’s made up of high testosterone, the dominance hormone, and low cortisol, a stress hormone. You have an individual who is dominant and willing to compete but not very stress-reactive, so confident and calm. You see the same hormone profile among leaders and people who have a lot of power. These hormones change constantly. If you lose a soccer game, your testosterone drops, your cortisol goes up. If you get rejected when you ask somebody out on a date, you might have the same reaction.
Alan: Sixty-one years ago, when I asked my wife out on the first date, I was full of cortisol. I want to ask you about that. Getting more confidence by changing your posture creates a lowering of cortisol in the body?
Amy: We don’t know that that is the mechanism.
Alan: It’s associated with it.
Amy: It’s associated, but there are other things going on. What we did find in the first study is that if we had people adapt powerful or powerless postures for just two minutes, we saw effects on hormones.
We took saliva samples and were able to capture testosterone and cortisol. We saw a significant increase in testosterone for the high power posers and a drop for the low power posers, and the opposite for cortisol. There is more, I think, to the story than that. Since then, a lot of other labs are providing other pieces of the puzzle.
Alan: I get the impression that what you’re talking about with the benefits of the power pose is not having power the way we ordinarily think of power, unbridled power where we dominate another person. There is this unexpected effect where you get more peace being with the other person. You’re able to read the other person better.
Amy: When we feel powerful, it doesn’t necessarily mean that we have power over others. It activates the behavioral approach system.
Alan: What is the behavioral approach system?
Amy: It means that instead of seeing a challenge as a threat, you see it as an opportunity. Instead of seeing someone as a potential predator or enemy, you see them as a potential friend or ally or collaborator.
Alan: This is so similar to what I learned to do as a young actor. Before the play would start, I’d be standing backstage and I’d hear the roar of the crowd and my first impulse was, they’re going to hate me. They’re there to judge me. Then by trial and error, I clicked into this other way of looking at it, which was, they came to see a show. They came to have a good time. I’m here for them and they’re here for me.
Amy: Exactly. They’re here for you. When I first started teaching at Harvard Business School, everyone said, these students are sharks. If they smell blood in the water, they’re going to come in for the kill. You’re a young woman, you have to be dominant. Instead, I decided they want to learn. I said to them, I’m new here. Let’s help each other make this a worthwhile experience. I had such a great relationship with those students. There aren’t that many people who are out there to heckle you.
Alan: Even if they are, if you’re not affected by it, some of them come around. Being a teacher and being able to make contact with the people that you’re talking with—you told me a story about a teacher who was good but then became great. How does that work?
Amy: I said, when did you go from being a competent teacher to being a great teacher? She said, “I was teaching and I realized that I was no longer thinking about what they were thinking of me. I was just thinking about what they were thinking.”
Alan: What’s so interesting is that you’re finding that power poses, rather than having a dominating effect, is leading more to empathy.
“Power does not corrupt, power always reveals.” — Robert Caro
Amy: Right, it allows people to be themselves. One of my favorite quotes about power is from Robert Caro. He was LBJ’s biographer and a great writer. In an interview once, somebody said, “Does power corrupt?” And he said, “Power does not corrupt, power always reveals.” When we feel powerful, we are able to be ourselves, to feel comfortable enough that we can focus on the other person in a healthy way.
Alan: I love this notion of the power pose being an occasion for you to take in the other person rather than dominate or be fearful of the other person. You mentioned the real you comes out. What is the real you? A lot of us have different parts in us. I have a flash temper. That’s not the part of me that I want to be. Are there not different aspects of ourselves that make us authentic? What is real authenticity to you?
Amy: It’s a word that’s thrown around like confetti on New Year’s Eve right now. Be your authentic self. Does that mean that you are unfiltered and you say anything that crosses your mind? Probably not. I believe the authentic self is about your core values. If I took something away and you ended up feeling no longer like Alan Alda, what would that thing be? What core value do you hold that defines who you are?
Alan: One would be curiosity. If you took my curiosity away, I probably wouldn’t be recognizable as me.
Amy: The next thing I would ask is to tell me about a time when you really followed your curiosity, how did it feel? That is the authentic self, that’s who you are.
Alan: This sounds corny, I know, but if you took away my wife, Arlene, I wouldn’t be who I am. I’ve been curious about science all my life and a letter came to me to host Scientific American Frontiers. Arlene said, do it, you’ll love it. Without her encouragement, I probably wouldn’t have and it’s launched me into what we’re doing now.
So what would happen if a majority of individuals in a group tried assuming expansive postures?
Amy: People generally don’t walk around feeling too powerful. They walk around feeling too powerless. I’m more concerned about making people feel powerful than making them feel less powerful. I think when a lot of people in a group do this, you’re going to get people to more of an average level. You’re not going to get a whole bunch of alphas.
Alan: Yesterday at a meeting I stretched out and made it as relaxed and normal-looking as possible. If everybody in the room had done that, if one of the effects of this physical posture is that you get more in tune with the other person, wouldn’t our communication have improved, because we were there to have a productive meeting? We weren’t in competition with one another. Wouldn’t that be a good thing?
Amy: Here is the problem with that. When people are interacting, they tend to mirror each other’s non-verbals. But that does not hold when there is power asymmetry. You don’t mirror each other, you complement each other, which means the poses become exaggerated in opposite directions. The person who feels more powerful gets even bigger and the person who feels powerless gets even smaller.
Alan: Do power posing and being aware of your posture have the same effect on children as it does on adults?
Amy: From thousands of parents and teachers, I hear this absolutely has an effect on kids. There is a great story at the end of the book about a young boy who has selective mutism. It’s not a physical disability, it’s a psychological block, an anxiety disorder—and he couldn’t speak in class.. A teacher started working with him on posture and slowly had him just say one thing a day and now he’s actually leading discussion sometimes in class.
Alan: It opens the door for more work, more research.
Amy: Absolutely, and I do agree that both boys and girls need to be aware of their posture. There are gender differences that you see emerge around middle school, where girls start to collapse. They start to do things like wrap their hand around their arms. They pull their sleeves down over their hands. They’re making themselves tiny.
Alan: Like a snail pulling in.
Amy: Exactly, and boys start to do the manspread and sprawl. My son is 14 and when he hit middle school, I saw that his female friends were starting to collapse. When do they learn that, or is that innate? We did some studies looking at four and six-year-olds and we showed them dolls. Each pair had one doll in an expansive posture and one that was in this collapse posture.
“How do we prevent our daughters from collapsing, how do we teach our daughters to take up their fair share of space? To share their ideas, to be strong and unapologetic.”
On an iPad, we said point to the boy, point to the girl. By age four, 75% showed a bias, where they thought the expansive ones were boys. By age six, 85% showed the bias. That is something that we’re very interested in understanding. How do we prevent our daughters from collapsing, how do we teach our daughters to take up their fair share of space? To share their ideas, to be strong and unapologetic.
Alan: Both men and women have a problem with expressing their true selves and being present, and yet women have a harder time because of the stereotypical position on them.
Amy: I think so. My main area of research is prejudice. I studied sexism and racism for many years. The issue is that if four-year-olds and six-year-olds expect that girls should be doing this, then that bias gets stronger as they get older. It’s a prescription about how women and men should behave. I’m not saying that anyone should be manspreading.
Alan: Men included.
Amy: Right. What I’m saying is that both women and men need to feel comfortable opening up, expanding, raising their hand, sharing their ideas. It’s more of a burden on women than men in the workplace, when women are trying to balance this need to be seen as trustworthy and also as competent and strong. Here is a really interesting new finding: there is a phenomenon called stereotype backlash. If a woman is seen as warm, then people say she’s not smart. If she’s seen as smart and competent then she’s not seen as warm and nice.
It’s the backlash that you get for presenting one positive trait. The study was a meta analysis that looked at over 70 other studies. They found that the women who were seen as both confident and warm were women who used comfortable, confident body language, who stood up straight, shook hands, made eye contact, leaned forward. That’s an example of the small things that we can do to buffer ourselves against stereotypes.
Alan: How do you feel about the age-old saying, mind over matter? Is neurological power greater than physical power?
Amy: Talking ourselves off the ledge when we’re really feeling anxious doesn’t work. Because when you say, “Oh, gosh, I’m feeling anxious, I’d better calm down,” it makes the anxiety worse. In fact, there is a study showing that instead of telling ourselves to calm down, when we have stage fright, we should say, I am excited.
Alan: Yeah, I have a similar thing. I transfer my anxiety into alertness. I realized that I’m super alert and I concentrate on that part of it, which is similar to being excited.
Amy: It’s a high arousal emotion. By saying calm down you’re trying to take yourself from high arousal to low arousal. By saying I’m excited, you’re going negative to positive. For the most part, we’re better at using our body because we skip all of those in-between steps.
This conversation has been edited and condensed. The full video can be viewed below.