How posture affects your position in the world 

Throughout the animal kingdom, power organizes social structures. Colloquially defined as a position of influence, control, or authority over others, there are many ways to gain and lose power. Today, power can be held by individuals with a wide following on the internet, but in a physical setting, non-verbal physical cues have a tremendous influence over the hierarchy of control. Internally, these same physical cues lead to self-reported feelings of control as well. 

Whether you’re the CEO or the most junior man or woman on the job, paying careful consideration to your nonverbal communication will help determine your sense of intrinsic and extrinsic power. How you position your body in space determines how powerful you feel and how powerful others interpret you to be. A powerful person typically has an expansive posture. A powerless person typically has a contractive posture. [1,2]

These outward signals are potentially biologically ingrained in humans and other mammals. Historically, power has governed the access to scarce materials, better mates, more ideal living conditions, and more influence over the surrounding tribe or group. Some scientists have even shown that infants and toddlers recognize power because of its representation of abundant resources.

Infants as young as 9 months of age have been shown to create dominance hierarchies. In preschoolers, more powerful individuals consistently outcompete other less powerful children for the most sought after toys. In these same settings, interpretation of relative body size (how big or small kids are compared to other kids), number of allies, and historical win-loss record signals formidability and thus ranks kids in a social hierarchy. [2]

The same phenomena occur at every step of life. 

In adults, scientists have shown that consciously assuming a certain body position, like an expansive posture or contractive posture, determines the secretion of testosterone and cortisol and how risk-averse an individual’s decision making will be. 

In this Harvard/Columbia study, researchers used generally accepted high power and low power postures. Examples of high power (fig 1) and low power (fig 2) postures are shown below.

The results of the study showed that high-power postures lead to psychological, physiological, and behavioral changes in line with previously studied effects of power on individuals in high-power roles. In other words, they found an increase in the hormone testosterone, a reduction in cortisol, increased feelings of power, and decreased risk aversion. [1]

Interestingly, the downstream physiological effect of high testosterone is anabolism, or the growth of muscles and other tissues. Similarly, low cortisol production protects muscles from the stress hormone’s catabolic (or breakdown) effect on muscle tissue. 

In contrast, individuals assuming a low-power posture had less testosterone and more cortisol. The subsequent effect of this hormone change is less muscle mass. Therefore, low-posture positions could lead to a smaller relative body mass, which is a further determinant of rank in the social hierarchy. 

We’ve all been guilty of bad posture. In light of these findings, the importance of correcting ourselves has only increased. 

As often as possible, put yourself in an expansive body position. Take up more space than usual, but that doesn’t mean be inconsiderate. Being an asshole often takes away from your power. 

Remember: a powerful position is an expansive and open position, and a powerless position takes up less space and is closed off. Open your chest, show your palms, and smile.

References:

1. Carney et al. Power Posing: Brief Nonverbal Displays Affect Neuroendocrine Levels and Risk Tolerance. Psychological Science. 21(10) 1363-1368. 2010. 

2. Thomsen, Lotte. The developmental origins of social hierarchy: how infants and young children mentally represent and respond to power and status. Current Opinion in Psychology. 33, 201-208. 2020.