The Lab Rat: How to Take a Position of Power

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Stories about brain research can get a little boring if you just cite an endless stream of academic papers and statistics. So welcome to Healthland’s latest feature: The Lab Rat. Here, I subject myself to the same kinds of psychological and neurological testing that I’ve been writing about for two years. Then I use that personal experience to understand more fully all the papers and statistics. That’s the idea, anyway. This week, how body position affects feelings of power.

Powerful people use their bodies to convey authority in at least two ways. There’s the hawk-like, leaning-forward pose, the one made famous in a 1957 photograph of Lyndon Johnson bullying a colleague, the tiny, octogenarian Senator Theodore Green. Or think of Montgomery Burns on The Simpsons — or Sue Sylvester on Glee — or Sarah Palin just as she is about to deliver a particularly good joke about Democrats. (More on Is a Wandering Mind an Unhappy One?)

There’s also a more subtle way to convey power, which is to occupy as much space as the body can — feet on the desk, fingers interlaced behind the head, elbows expansive. You can find images of many Presidents (there are examples herehere, and here) with feet up in the Oval Office and advisers looking on with their vulnerable smiles.

Not long ago, a team of researchers from Columbia and Harvard wondered not whether power can manifest itself in posture — that seems clear — but whether the reverse could also be true. If you put ordinary people into postures associated with power — a hawk-like pose, or a feet-on-the-desk position — will their bodies respond? More powerful people — those who make more money and have higher-status jobs — reliably show higher levels of testosterone (no matter their gender) and lower levels of cortisol, the stress hormone. The Columbia and Harvard researchers reasoned that if you put people in the power postures, their hormones might respond accordingly. (More on The Lab Rat: How to Improve Memory in 15 Minutes)

A couple of weeks ago, I went to a Columbia lab and spat into a little tube to see if the researchers were right. Have you ever tried to spit on demand? It’s harder than you think. Columbia professor Dana Carney gave me a piece of gum to help. In the end, I was able to spit into two tubes: one just after I arrived and then another after Carney had placed me into the power postures, the hawk one and the feet-on-the-desk one.

Carney then sent both spit samples to a lab at Penn State. We waited a couple of weeks, and when the results came back, it turned out my testosterone had doubled in the 15 minutes after I put myself into the power positions.

My response wasn’t unusual. Carney and her colleagues Andy Yap at Columbia and Amy Cuddy at Harvard recently wrote a paper evaluating the responses of 42 people who underwent a test similar to one I took. The paper, which was published in the journal Psychological Science, reported that cortisol and testosterone levels significantly changed for most people after they had arranged their bodies into the power postures. The paper builds on earlier research showing that if you hold a pencil in your teeth — which forces your facial muscles to approximate a smile — you will report feeling happier. (More on How Much Happiness Can Money Buy? About $75,000 Worth)

So what do we do: hold pencils in our mouths and stand like aggressive birds? You could try that. (Please send video.) A better idea would be to think of the body and the brain as separate bureaucracies under the same government. Exercise is one good method of governing yourself; there’s a reason one of the most basic exercises is called a lunge.
Carney and her colleagues have a useful phrase for how posturing the body can change the mind: they call them “the effects of embodiment.” In short, how you hold yourself out to the world matters not just to how people see to, but to your very cells.

If you are a researcher or know about interesting psychology or brain research that I could participate in (no lobotomies, please), email me:

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