Do you remember how concerned your parents were with your posture? “Shoulders back”, they might have reminded you, “don’t slouch,” or perhaps they’d encourage you to keep your “chin up.” Although it’s unlikely they were thinking about your future dating life, it turns out that our parents were correct – posture is important. In fact, what we do with our bodies is far more powerful than even psychologists had previously expected.
Posture or body expansion is an important communication signal in the animal kingdom. From cats to dogs, bears and primates, all the way up the evolutionary ladder to humans, the expansion of the body is associated with power, status, and dominance. Bears will rear onto their hind legs to intimidate, birds will puff out their feathers or spread their wings, chimps will expand their arms. Power is associated with size. On the flip-side, submission also has a common appearance across animals – constricting the body, bending down, lowering eye contact, essentially making the body small and non-threatening. This is submission to power, like someone showing respect to a king.
Researchers have found that, as humans, we assume someone is powerful and high in status when we see expanded body posture. Picture someone sitting with their limbs spread out (e.g., legs apart and arms resting on the chair next to them, or standing with hands on their hips); you are likely to automatically perceive that they are a person of high status. We assume someone is low in power when we see constricted posture, like them being hunched over with their hands in their lap, or their legs pulled under them.
Recent fascinating research has shown that, as well as convincing others that we are more powerful, expanded body posture appears to convince ourselves that we are more powerful1. After deliberately posing participants into powerful expanded postures, researchers discovered that these participants thought and behaved more like powerful people. Like those in power, they took risks, reporting feeling powerful, were more inclined to approach new experiences rather than avoid them, and even performed better on abstract cognitive tasks. Another similar study found that just two minutes in these powerful poses leads to increases in testosterone and a decrease in the stress hormone cortisol – the endocrine profile associated with powerful people – compared to those posed in constricted postures2. And just how strong are these posture effects? Stronger than being placed in an actual position of power (like being able to control the rewards other participants received) or recalling experiences of being powerful, according to one study.
These studies come out of the investigation of embodied cognition, in which researchers look at how the body influences thought (as well as feeling and behavior). And how does this apply to your dating life? Power has long been recognized as an attractive trait for men, so the appearance and experience of power that comes from adopting powerful postures will be beneficial to men. Research has shown that men who expand their bodies in bars are the recipients of more “come-hither” signals from women3. Additionally, the boost in risk-taking and approach-motivation that comes naturally with increased experience of power will lead to more attempts at meeting people – one of the core principles to successful dating. The wonderful thing is that these benefits flow from the simple act of expanding the body and taking up more space. No complicated mental or verbal techniques required. (No wonder your authors include this principle in their Social Warm Up exercises when working with patients on dating skills.)
As always, there’s a wrong way to do this. But if you start in moderation, perhaps checking in with your body occasionally to see that you aren’t overly constricting yourself, you are likely to sample some of the benefits. Go try it out.
- Huang, L., Galinsky, A. D., Gruenfeld, D. H., & Guillory, L. E. (2011). Powerful postures versus powerful roles: Which is the proximate correlate of thought and behavior?. Psychological Science, 22(1), 95-102.
- Carney, D. R., Cuddy, A. C., & Yap, A. J. (2010). Power posing: Brief nonverbal displays affect neuroendocrine levels and risk tolerance. Psychological Science, 21(10), 1363-1368.
- Renninger, L., Wade, T., & Grammer, K. (2004). Getting that female glance: Patterns and consequences of male nonverbal behavior in courtship contexts. Evolution and Human Behavior, 25(6), 416-431.