Feeling powerless? Try standing tall

Superman never seems nervous when facing the bad guys, and yet my palms get sweaty and my head starts to swim any time I have to do something as seemingly easy as sitting down for a casual interview. What makes Superman so sure of himself in the face of situations that would scare any sane person half to death? According to social psychologist Amy Cuddy, Superman’s confidence doesn’t come from his cape, his skin-tight clothes or even his alien superpowers—it’s his pose that does the trick.

Body language is a huge part of human communication. But a little-known fact is that body language not only changes how others perceive you, it changes how you perceive yourself.

In a TED talk titled “Your body language shapes who you are,” Cuddy explores how these different postures affect your mood. Cuddy says that it is not a one-way street with attitude and posture. People don’t just take a certain posture because they feel a certain way; they can feel powerful or powerless because of the way they are sitting or standing.

Almost everyone has seen a movie or video clip where an animal, when threatened, either makes itself look bigger to exert dominance or makes itself smaller to show submission. It works the same way with humans. People who are confident tend to spread out and take up more space. Cuddy called this the “Alpha male” response. Conversely, someone who feels out of place or uncomfortable will try to make themselves smaller by doing things like folding their arms, crossing their legs or hunching.

As it turns out, these posture changes affect the human endocrine system in a drastic way. According to a study conducted by Cuddy and the Harvard Business School, changes in posture affect testosterone and cortisol levels in the body.

Testosterone is the dominance hormone and cortisol is the stress hormone. The study tested the hormone levels of two groups of test subjects. The first group of test subjects took a low-power pose, making themselves smaller and taking submissive or defensive postures. The second group took high-power poses, such as standing with their legs apart and their fists on their hips or raising both fists into the air in a victory stance. The study found that taking a dominant pose for just two minutes increased testosterone levels by 25 percent while decreasing cortisol levels by 15 percent. The subjects said that they felt more self-assured and less stressed out after holding the pose.

This study translates almost seamlessly into the life of a college student. Class participation, important tests and job interviews are all high-stress situations that can cause a lot of anxiety. One way to walk into each of these situations with confidence is to take a power stance. Now, that doesn’t mean standing in the middle of class looking like Superman and staring down every person who walks in. In class it may simply look like sitting up straight and raising your hand high when you want to ask or answer a question.

One thing that Cuddy does suggest is, before a test or an interview, assuming one of those high-power stances (a good example is the way any superhero looks when they confront the main bad guy) while in front of the bathroom mirror or in an unused classroom. Holding it for just two minutes can increase your testosterone, decrease your cortisol and help you walk into any situation with confidence like Superman’s.

Rebecca Fedorko is a junior journalism major from Buda. She is a reporter for the Lariat.