Stumbling and Mumbling

Author: chris dillow   |   Latest post: Tue, 16 Oct 2018, 01:25 PM


The problem with power poses

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Millions of people will have looked at the newspaper front pages this morning and wondered: why is Sajid Javid looking like an utter tool? The answer sheds light upon the nature of academic research and people's attitudes to it. Infjavid

The reason for his absurd stance can be found in a paper (pdf) by Amy Cuddy and colleagues. They claim that by using "expansive postures" a person can "embody power and instantly become more powerful":

By simply changing physical posture, an individual prepares his or her mental and physiological systems to endure difficult and stressful situations, and perhaps to actually improve confidence and performance in situations such as interviewing for jobs, speaking in public, disagreeing with a boss, or taking potentially profitable risks.

There's just one big problem with this. It's that what scant evidence there ever was for such a claim has not been corroborated by later studies. What we have here, then, is yet more evidence for the replicability crisis.

The mistake that Javid and other Tories has made is to be too credulous about academic research. For me, a single scientific paper should be the start of an inquiry rather than a basis for immediate action. When we see an interesting claim such as Cuddy's we must ask (at least) two questions: what other evidence do we have for it? And: what mechanisms might produce such an effect?

Power poses fail these tests. Possessing power is not merely a matter of what happens in your own head. It's about how others see you. When we see someone adopting an expansive posture (such as manspreading) do we really think: this is an admirable person worthy of our deference?

No. This alone should have alerted Tories to a lack of external validity in that paper. Blackadderstance

Then we have the second question: what's the mechanism? Maybe it's possible that spreading one's legs like that releases testosterone. To most observers, however, it merely reminds them of Prince Regent in Blackadder. That is no way to win respect. And in fact in England at least we have a long tradition of laughing at people who think they can aspire to power by striking unconventional poses. As Bertie Wooster says in The Code of the Woosters:

The trouble with you, Spode, is that just because you have succeeded in inducing a handful of half-wits to disfigure the London scene by going about in black shorts, you think you're someone. You hear them shouting "Heil, Spode!" and you imagine it is the Voice of the People. That is where you make your bloomer. What the Voice of the People is saying is: "Look at that frightful ass Spode swanking about in footer bags! Did you ever in your puff see such a perfect perisher?"

In not being aware of any of this, Tories such as Javid have demonstrated a tin ear for our cultural referents. They've done so, I fear, in part because of wishful thinking. The prospect of becoming "instantly more powerful" merely by standing in a particular way is a tempting one. And politicians - like other people - have always been quick to believe what they want to believe.

In truth, though, in acting on a belief for which there is no evidence, Tories have merely made themselves look stupid. This, of course, is not just true of power posing.

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