To build confidence, try acting like this guy. Image via The Justice Bulletin
Fake it till you make it. It’s good advice for young people entering the soul-sucking world of competitive job markets. But it’s not just about convincing other people you’re competent. New science shows that faking it affects the faker, as well. It changes us in physiological ways that make us calmer and more confident.
In her fascinating new Ted Talk, Harvard social psychologist Amy Cuddy describes the way human beings and animals communicate power to one another non-verbally, then goes on to pose a few basic questions: “Do our non-verbals govern how we think about ourselves?” and “Do our bodies change our minds?”
Earlier studies have shown that non-verbal actions “work both ways,” she notes. For example, we smile when we’re happy, but studies have also shown that faking and holding a smile makes people feel happier.
They also show that the acquisition of power can lead to physiological differences among people, she notes. Powerful people have higher levels of testosterone and lower levels of cortisol, a hormone associated with stress. And previous studies with primates showed that when a primate is compelled to suddenly take over an alpha role, the individual exhibits significantly higher testosterone and lower cortisol levels within a few days.
Cuddy wanted to these kinds of effects in greater depth. Working with Dana Carney, a business school professor at Berkeley, she designed a study in which subjects were asked to assume high-power pose (like standing up straight with your hands on your hips) or low-power poses (like touching your neck while sitting) and hold them for two minutes.
Various tests afterward showed that people who had held the high-power pose were more likely to take risks and showed a 20 percent increase in testosterone. People who held the low-power poses were less willing to take risks and actually exhibited a drop in testosterone. Cortisol levels responded in the opposite way.
Cuddy, it turns out, is living proof. When she was 19, she describes, she was in a terrible car accident where she was thrown from the car. When she awoke she was in a head trauma unit, and had been withdrawn from school. Her IQ, she was informed, had dropped by two standard deviations. After working her butt off to get through college anyway, she went to Princeton, where she was afraid she’d be discovered to be a fraud. A professor encouraged her to “fake it,” and she did. Now she’s a Harvard professor.
“Don’t fake it until you make it,” she concludes. “Fake it until you become it.”