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How to Use Your Body Language to Become More Confident

8 minute read
Parrish is the entrepreneur and wisdom seeker behind Farnam Street and the host of The Knowledge Project Podcast, where he focuses on turning timeless insights into action. His new book is Clear Thinking: Turning Ordinary Moments Into Extraordinary Results

We all pretty much know that our mood is reflected in our body language. When you think of somewhat lacking confidence or lacking enthusiasm, a common mental image comes to mind, and research has shown it to be about right: Hunching, smallness, droopiness, etc. This seems obviously and intuitively true.

Unsurprisingly, our cousins in the animal kingdom are similar in their displays of body language. In her book Presence, Harvard psychologist Amy Cuddy has an interesting section on the study of body language in animals–which is in many ways much simpler to do because primates and snakes, lacking the same theories of mind as humans, don’t really fake their body language.

When chimpanzees hold their breath until their chests bulge, they’re signaling their rank in the hierarchy. Male chimpanzees, to show their status to a subordinate male, expand by walking upright and even holding pieces of wood to extend the perceived length of their limbs. The hair on their bodies also stands on end (a phenomenon known as piloerection). And male silverback gorillas do indeed beat their fists against their expanded chests to communicate strength and power when an unwelcome male is encroaching on their territory. Primates also demonstrate their power by occupying spaces that are central, high, and particularly valuable, making themselves visible and putting themselves physically above the others.

Our more distant animal relatives are even less restricted by social pressures. When peacocks raise and spread their kaleidoscopic tail feathers, they’re boldly displaying their dominance to potential mates; they don’t hold back.When a king cobra wants to show someone who’s boss, it has no second thoughts about rearing up the front part of the body, inflating its hood, and “growling.”

So we’re not alone: body language is a key indicator across the animal kingdom. But the more interesting question is the inversion of that idea: Can we manipulate our minds by altering our body language? Can we actually “fake it” ’til we “make it”?

Amy Cuddy seems to think so, but she has something to add.


Cuddy gave her first TED talk in 2012 on body language and how it influences our interactions with others, both how we act and how others perceive us.

It turned out to be a hit, with over 30 million views to date. The key idea in the speech was the “power pose” – manipulating your own body language to make yourself feel more poised and confident. Here’s a key section of the speech:

So this is what we did. We decided to bring people into the lab and run a little experiment,and these people adopted, for two minutes, either high-power poses or low-power poses,and I’m just going to show you five of the poses, although they took on only two. So here’s one. A couple more. This one has been dubbed the “Wonder Woman” by the media. Here are a couple more. So you can be standing or you can be sitting. And here are the low-power poses. So you’re folding up, you’re making yourself small. This one is very low-power. When you’re touching your neck, you’re really protecting yourself.

So this is what happens. They come in, they spit into a vial, for two minutes, we say, “You need to do this or this.” They don’t look at pictures of the poses. We don’t want to prime them with a concept of power. We want them to be feeling power. So two minutes they do this. We then ask them, “How powerful do you feel?” on a series of items, and then we give them an opportunity to gamble, and then we take another saliva sample. That’s it. That’s the whole experiment.

So this is what we find. Risk tolerance, which is the gambling, we find that when you are in the high-power pose condition, 86 percent of you will gamble. When you’re in the low-power pose condition, only 60 percent, and that’s a whopping significant difference.

Here’s what we find on testosterone. From their baseline when they come in, high-power people experience about a 20-percent increase, and low-power people experience about a 10-percent decrease. So again, two minutes, and you get these changes. Here’s what you get on cortisol. High-power people experience about a 25-percent decrease, and the low-power people experience about a 15-percent increase. So two minutes lead to these hormonal changes that configure your brain to basically be either assertive, confident and comfortable, or really stress-reactive, and feeling sort of shut down. And we’ve all had the feeling, right? So it seems that our nonverbals do govern how we think and feel about ourselves, so it’s not just others, but it’s also ourselves. Also, our bodies change our minds.

There are a few very interesting pieces in here. Not only are the poses of confident body language having a significant chemical effect in the “posers,” but it’s affecting their behavior in a significant way. A higher propensity to gamble stemming from increased confidence.

Of course, social science has already told us fairly clearly that the latter is true: Confidence does lead to a higher propensity to gamble. If the gamble remains the same (the odds are generally not favorable towards the gambler), we might call any increase in confidence in the face of the same odds a propensity towards over-confidence. (And of course, confidence has a host of positiveeffects on decision making as well, like less dithering.) So changing body language can actually cause us to make more mistakes if we’re operating in the wrong realm; this is something we must stay on guard against. Is this a situation where great confidence is warranted and desired?


Cuddy’s main point is that there real practical effects to manipulating our body language: We really can influence perception.

In one experiment, some interviewees were directed to do “power posing” before an interview, whereas others we not. Upon seeing the videos of both, a group of third-party observers — unaware that one group had been posing and another had not, and in fact had no idea the aims of the study — wanted to hire the high-power posers:

[The observers are] blind to the hypothesis. They’re blind to the conditions. They have no idea who’s been posing in what pose, and they end up looking at these sets of tapes, and they say, “We want to hire these people,” all the high-power posers. “We don’t want to hire these people. [The non-posers.] We also evaluate these people much more positively overall.” But what’s driving it? It’s not about the content of the speech. It’s about the presence that they’re bringing to the speech.

In her book, Cuddy says this is not because we’re fooling them into believing we’re more confident than we really are. It’s because we’re fooling ourselves out of our own lack of self-confidence. What the interviewer sees is real. Inauthenticity is too noticeable; it usually backfires.

What do we know so far? Presence stems from believing our own stories. When we don’t believe our own stories, we are inauthentic — we are deceiving, in a way, both ourselves and others. And this self-deception is, it turns out, observable to others as our confidence wanes and our verbal and non-verbal behaviors become dissonant.

Cuddy concludes her book by bringing in a theory of “Self-nudging” – manipulating our own body language to get ourselves in the right frame of mind, where we can be authentically present and comfortable in our skin. So, can we “fake it til we make it?” Sure, but go one step further.

“Don’t fake it ’til you make it. Fake it til you become it.” That’s what this is about — incrementally nudging yourself to become the best version of yourself. Being present during these challenging moments. It’s not about fooling other people to get the things you desire, then having to continue with the charade. It’s about fooling yourself, just a bit, until you feel more powerful, more present — and it’s about keeping up the practice, even if it takes time to get there.

This piece originally appeared on Farnam Street.

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