Amy Cuddy: Your Body Language Shapes Who You Are

Amy Cuddy isn’t the professor most students would expect to see at the head of a Harvard Business School classroom, but her research might help you ace post-graduation interviews more than anything else you learn in business school. A trained social psychologist, Cuddy studies the dynamics of power and judgment in human communication. She has examined a variety of questions ranging from why voters elect one candidate over another, to how hormone levels influence risk-taking behavior. Cuddy’s narrow frame, expansive gestures and erect posture (she trained as a classical dancer) are the kind of factors that often determine job interview outcomes, according to her TED Talk “Your Body Language Shapes Who You Are.”

Body Language and Perception

Body language influences how we perceive others, although we might not realize how dramatically it affects us. Cuddy recounts one study in which participants were asked to watch silent, 30-second video clips of physicians interacting with patients. They were then asked how they perceived the physicians. With no sound, the viewers formed strong opinions about the physicians’ personalities based on their body language. In fact, the physicians who were perceived as “not nice” based on their body language were more likely to be sued for malpractice, showing how accurate perceptions of body language can be. Cuddy shows that being conscientious of body language can help us in our careers, from making a good impression to maintaining people’s opinions of us. But how does body language affect our own self-perception?

Talking To Ourselves

Cuddy and her research partner asked if “nonverbal [communication] governs how we think and feel about ourselves.” The answer was a resounding yes. They performed an experiment and found that adopting an expansive “power pose” for two minutes before a mock job interview significantly affected the interviewee’s hormone levels, confidence and risk-taking behavior. Cuddy’s “power pose” experiment shows that deliberately adjusting body language even when no one is watching can produce temporary changes in behavior and self-presentation. This is important information for business students, as a lack of confidence during a job interview or a critical presentation can impact careers. But is manipulating your body’s hormone levels really the same as increasing your confidence, even if nobody else knows? Can the practice of “power posing” really help us change our behavior in the long term or is it only a temporary crutch? Or, as Cuddy asks, “Can you fake it ’til you make it?”

Fake It ’Til You Become It

Cuddy’s research indicates that you can fake it ‘til you make it, and that it is surprisingly easy to do so. But the problem, she admits, is that most people don’t want to fake the most important evaluative interactions of their lives. Cuddy refers to when she was singled out at a young age as an intelligent or “gifted” student. But when she suffered brain damage in a car accident at 19, she was informed that her intelligence had dropped significantly and that she would be unable to complete college. She refused to give in. It took her eight years to receive her bachelor’s degree while recovering from her injuries. Though she refused to surrender to others’ negative perceptions of her, Cuddy describes the experience of her education as one long crisis of confidence.

Even after earning her bachelor’s degree and taking the first steps toward earning her doctorate degree from Princeton, she couldn’t rid the feeling that she was an impostor, unworthy of success. When her students at Harvard Business School started coming to her for advice about their own crises she finally realized she’d become successful long ago. “Don’t fake it ’til you make it. Fake it ’til you become it,” Cuddy says. While some will resist the idea of “power posing” in a bathroom for two minutes before a job interview, Cuddy’s research has powerful implications for an individual’s self confidence. Practicing awareness of your body language during everyday interactions, from how high you raise your hand in the classroom to how firmly you shake hands at the end of an important meeting, takes little effort and goes a long way toward making a strong impression. Whether or not you feel comfortable with all of Cuddy’s suggestions, keeping your chin up won’t hurt.