Authority, Pseudoscience and Amy Cuddy

If you have surfed the interwebz in the last five years, chances are high that you would have stumbled upon one of Amy Cuddy’s articles or talks about ‘power posing’. Admittedly the argument that she weaves is actually convincing, and the simple fix she suggests to help with stressful situations most compelling. But what part of this claim is actually evidence based research, and what part is abusing authority to stretch scientific truth?

Power Posing

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In case you haven’t read the journal paper published in 20101 or watched the famous TED talk by Amy Cuddy two years following that, ‘Power Posing’ is the notion that adopting a posture of confidence – regardless of our actual confidence level – can affect testosterone and cortisol levels in the brain. Neuroendocrine profiles of high testosterone coupled with low cortisol has been linked with disease resistance and leadership abilities.

The amount of positive coverage and reviews she received for the claims and ‘research’ that backed it up was immense. Even the New York Times and CNN ate it up.

Criticism

For the study, participants were made to adopt either a ‘high power’ or ‘low power’ pose, as shown. Their ‘risk taking’ inclinations as well as their testosterone and cortisol levels were then assessed.

posing

Not long after these bold claims however, criticism emerged over the credibility and accuracy of both the results, as well as their interpretation. People who used statistics on a regular basis pointed out key flaws within the study: the tiny sample size, small effects magnified, possible p-hacking, confounds within the study, the list goes on…

A key study that deserves to be highlighted aimed to replicate the original Carney, Cuddy, and Yap study using a sample population five times larger than the original group. The paper was published in 20152 – by the same journal that first published the original – and the team reported that they had found ‘power posing’ to have no effect.

After these findings were released, even the primary author of the original study – Dana Carney – released a statement highlighting the severe deficiencies in the paper, most notably stating that even she “did not believe that ‘power pose’ effects were real… the evidence against the existence of power poses is undeniable”, citing further negative replication studies.

But the damage had been done. Thousands had already taken Cuddy’s advice to heart, and though the unsuccessful replication did receive some news coverage it was nowhere near the levels that the TED talk garnered.

Cuddy’s Response

Cuddy did finally issue a response to these findings which highlighted the fact that adopting expansive postures causes people to feel more powerful, something that was noted in several studies. She goes on to further state that this feeling is actually the ‘power posing effect’, while other outcomes such as physiology were secondary to the key effect. Bizzare.

When faced with the prospect of defending the lack of statistical evidence in support of the ‘power posing effect’ however, Cuddy comes up with this:

“While I am confident about the key power posing effect on feelings of power and the overall evidential value of the literature, I am agnostic about the effects of expansive posture on hormones. The jury is still out.”

That is to say, the efficacy of such a pose can only be measured – at this time – based on ‘feelings of power’ and not their ability to change hormonal levels. Notice how she uses ‘agnostic’ instead of skeptical and ‘expansive posture’ instead of ‘power posing’ to draw negative attention away from the term.

Thoughts

Just the other day I was on Instagram and saw a post by a medical student encouraged ‘power posing’, possibly the biggest piece of pseudoscience since the Fleischmann-Pons cold fusion study. And yet here was a soon-to-be doctor, using her position of relative authority (albeit naively and with good intentions) to spread the claim with little backing of any evidence.

The big take away here is that just because someone of authority says something is true doesn’t mean you have to take their word for it. Question claims; demand evidence. That’s not to say that you should be cynical toward every word thrown your way, but a healthy dose of skepticism is an important part of being a scientist and, well, of life.

And for those who think the pseudoscience label to be a little harsh, here is a definition:

Pseudoscience includes beliefs, theories, or practices that have been or are considered scientific, but have no basis in scientific fact. This could mean they were disproved scientifically, can’t be tested or lack evidence to support them.

And as of right now, ‘power posing’ is exactly that.

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Reference

  1. Carney, D. R., Cuddy, A. J., & Yap, A. J. (2010). Power posing brief nonverbal displays affect neuroendocrine levels and risk tolerance. Psychological Science, 21(10), 1363-1368.
  2. Ranehill, E., Dreber, A., Johannesson, M., Leiberg, S., Sul, S., & Weber, R. A. (2015). Assessing the Robustness of Power Posing No Effect on Hormones and Risk Tolerance in a Large Sample of Men and Women. Psychological science, 26(5), 653-656.