The secret power of body language

Our success both as a species and as individuals depends hugely upon our ability to effectively communicate. In day to day life, at work, in social situations and in our home lives, we’re familiar with the power of words and the impact that this verbal communication can have on the relationships around us. Something that is often underestimated however, is the power of non-verbal communication, otherwise known as body language. But body language can be just as important as verbal and written interactions. It hugely affects both our judgements of other people and their judgements of us.

For example, a long time before babies can understand verbal cues, they are able to tune into other people’s body language and are extremely responsive to the emotions they see. The “Still Face Experiment” (Tronick et al, 1975) proved just how powerful non-verbal communication can be to babies. You can watch an example of the experiment below:

Humans use body language in the same instinctive ways that can be seen in the animal kingdom. Confidence and power are embodied by heads lifted high and bodies opened up, demonstrating what we know as high-power poses. On the flip side, bodies that are closed down and folding in on themselves demonstrate what is recognised universally as a low-power pose.

It’s easy to spot differences between people who practice these opposing types of body language, but physiologically how do they differ? There are several hormones that are responsible for affecting how we feel, and the two most important here are testosterone (the dominance hormone) and cortisol (the stress hormone). Research shows that a person who feels more confident is likely to have higher testosterone and lower cortisol levels. For someone who is less confident, it’s the exact opposite.

However, these hormone levels are not set in stone. Social psychologist Amy Cuddy wanted to find out whether changing a person’s body language could impact their hormone levels, and in turn how powerful that person feels and how they are perceived by others.

In her initial study, a group of people took on either a high or low power pose for 2 minutes. People who had adopted high-power poses exhibited a 25% decrease in cortisol (stress) levels, whilst people who adopted low power poses saw a 15% increase in it. This suggested that changing your body language for just 2 minutes could physiologically alter your stress levels and how confident you are feeling.

Cuddy wanted to dig deeper and understand how this might play out in real life scenarios, so a second study asked people to high or low power pose for 2 minutes before a rigorous ‘job interview’. The 5-minute interview was deliberately tough, for example the interviewer offered absolutely no non-verbal feedback, which is a well-known trigger for stressing people out!

The interviews were filmed, and the tapes were watched back by a group of people with no background knowledge of the study. They were then asked to decide who they would hire, and unanimously chose the people who had high-power posed prior to the interviews. When asked for their reasoning, it wasn’t because of what the high-power posers had said, it was because of a certain presence they had brought to the situation… Turns out, high-power posers’ lowered cortisol and increased testosterone levels had resulted in them being perceived as more confident and authentic than those who had low-power posed, illustrating how you can “fake it until you become it” when it comes to being confident.

Cuddy’s research identified the powerful links between our bodies, our minds and our behaviour – behaviour which can have serious impacts in certain life situations. Practicing high-power poses and ‘faking it until you become it’ means that over time, these small changes can make big differences to not only how we are perceived by others, but most importantly to how we feel about ourselves.

You can watch Amy Cuddy’s TED Talk on this subject below:

Written by:

Laura Osborne


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