By Peter M. Vishton, PhD, William & Mary
Edited by Kate Findley and proofread by Angela Shoemaker, Wondrium Daily
Do you wish you could easily summon up confidence in social situations or moments of stress? As it turns out, you can! Professor Vishton explains.
The “Wonder Woman” Pose
As you are reading this article, stand up. Now, adopt what Amy Cuddy and her colleagues refer to as a power pose, which is a dominant posture. Start with the “Wonder Woman” pose.
Stand with your shoulders back and spread apart. Don’t let them shift forward and get hunched. Your legs should be spaced apart—not close together or crossed. Your neck is extended, and your head is facing forward—not turned to the side and pulled downward.
As you stand like this, even for about two minutes, your body position changes the way your brain is functioning. There are some unconsciously controlled systems in your brain that are ramping up in activity, while others are being suppressed. In just a few minutes, your personality actually changes. You become more confident and assertive.
If you are faced with a stressful situation and you stand with the dominant posture for two minutes, your body will react to the stress with less impact to your system, with the change lasting for the next 30 minutes or so.
When you think of confident people, this type of posture comes to mind. Among nonhuman primates—and even humans—we have a notion of a dominant or alpha personality. When an alpha male baboon is faced with a stressful situation—like a challenge from a rival troop or the appearance of some predator—that baboon’s nervous system springs into action.
Mammals, including humans, possess a large and important autonomic nervous system. This extensive network of neurons connects all of our internal organs and is responsible for regulating our general state of arousal.
Fight or Flight
You’ve likely heard of a fight or flight response when you are faced with a threatening, fear-inducing stimulus. Your body produces a rush of adrenaline, increased heart rate and breathing. You become prepared to fight for your life or to quickly escape the danger—the flight part of the response. These shifts in state of arousal are associated with the sympathetic nervous system—that’s one half of your autonomic nervous system.
The other half of the autonomic nervous system is the parasympathetic system, which is associated with the opposite of fight or flight. When you are relaxed and engaged in standard types of behaviors, the parasympathetic system is active. Often a boost in the activity of the parasympathetic system is referred to as the rest and digest mode in contrast to fight or flight.
When this alpha male baboon faces off against the threat, his whole body shifts into this fight or flight mode, and an aggressive response will often result. In some cases, this might be a physical, violent response.
In many cases, it’s just a show of aggression—enough to scare off a rival, for example. Thus, the fight or flight response is activated, and then it is given an outlet.
Consider, however, a baboon that falls much lower in the social hierarchy. Maybe the baboon is smaller, weaker, and a far less dominant member of the troop hierarchy.
When faced with a threat, this baboon will still have a strong sympathetic nervous system response. The fight or flight response will be activated, but this smaller baboon is much more likely to engage in the flight action—to cower and avoid the conflict.
Now, this flight response is adaptive in that not fleeing might result in injury or even death, but it’s detrimental to the long-term health of the baboon. The sympathetic response system produces a wide range of stress-related hormones—among them cortisol, which is associated with many negative health outcomes.
Dominant Posture in Confrontations
This same thing is true with humans. When we are faced with a stressful stimulus such as a confrontational disagreement with a colleague, at least two strategies present themselves.
You might engage in the conflict. Alternatively, you might seek to escape—to at least tacitly agree with the confrontational person so that you can end the confrontation.
Even before a confrontation like this takes place, you can see baboons or humans posturing in preparation for it. If someone is a more senior or dominant member of a group, they will tend to adopt a more spread out posture.
When they sit among the group, their arms and legs will often spread into the adjacent spaces around them. Their backs will tend to be more straight.
People in the group who are less dominant will tend to do the opposite. They will cross their legs and their arms and their shoulders will tend to be hunched. They will seem to do everything they can to make themselves smaller—to consume less of the space in the room around them.
Simply by watching pairs of people interact, you can often readily see who is the more dominant of the two by looking at their posture. When the two have a conflict, you can readily predict who will be the winner of any argument.
Benefits of Dominance
For many reasons, people who seem more dominant tend to get treated better. They tend to get more job offers and raises; they tend to receive a larger share of contested resources; and they even seem to get better grades in college classes.
One other piece of this puzzle is the notion that we, like members of that baboon troop we’ve imagined, tend to get into the habit of responding in one way or another—either in an assertive or diminutive fashion. If you have gotten accustomed to shrinking from stress, you are likely to continue to do so.
As with the emotional system, it seems that our bodies play a significant role in mediating how we respond. Certainly, if our brain decides to be dominant and assertive, it can dictate to our bodies to behave accordingly. Conversely, though, our bodies can dictate to our brain how dominant we are through our posture.
This article was edited by Kate Findley, Writer for Wondrium Daily, and proofread by Angela Shoemaker, Proofreader and Copy Editor for Wondrium Daily.
Peter M. Vishton is an Associate Professor of Psychology at William & Mary. He earned his PhD in Psychology and Cognitive Science from Cornell University. Before joining the faculty of William & Mary, he taught at Northwestern University and served as the program director for developmental and learning sciences at the National Science Foundation.