Study: Your natural posture probably makes you look more competent than a ‘power pose’

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Stand erect with your feet apart. Hold your arms and legs away from your body. Puff out your chest. Keep your chin up. There has been much hype surrounding this so-called “power pose”. But new research suggests that your natural posture is a better way to look competent.

The study was published in the May 2017 issue of the Journal of British Psychology.

“I can’t help but be fascinated by nonverbal behaviour as it’s something that affects every one of us. None of us can escape giving away something about ourselves through our nonverbal behaviour and, similarly, judging others by theirs,” explained Daniel J. Gurney of the University of Hertfordshire, the lead author of the study.

“We know from previous research that people tend to make judgements about us based on the clothes we wear and the postures we sit or stand in,” he told PsyPost. “However, no one has really considered which of these is most important and what people pay most attention to when forming an opinion of us. For instance, does it matter if you’re in a weak pose if you’re dressed smartly? And do ‘power poses’ work better when you’re dressed in a certain way? The study was designed to help us see how these two nonverbal behaviours worked together to affect how other people judge us.”

In the study, 106 adults (with an average age of 29) viewed pictures of male and female models in a variety of poses and attire. The participants rated the competency of each model. (Specifically, the models’ perceived confidence, professionalism, approachability, and likeliness of earning a high salary.)

Those in strong open poses were viewed as more competent than those in weak closed-off poses. But those in neutral poses were rated as the most competent of all.

“One of the most interesting findings for me was that people were almost always seen to be more competent when they were posing naturally,” Gurney told PsyPost. “The strong poses did make our models look more competent than the weak poses, but people generally thought more highly of them when they posed in a way that was natural to them. So, the message seems to be that you shouldn’t deliberately try to pose in a way that makes you look more competent; if you just act naturally, you’ll look as competent as you can.”

So-called “power poses” have been touted as a way to improve your mood, career, and even your health. But the psychologist who spawned these bold claims has since disavowed them.

Nevertheless, other research has found that people in strong poses are viewed as more competent than people in weak poses. But the new findings indicate that this might not be because strong poses are particularly beneficial — rather it because weak poses are detrimental.

Gurney and his colleagues only examined how the models were perceived. How the models themselves felt in the different poses is an area for further study.

“This study really just focused on how people in different postures and clothing were judged by others, and we didn’t pay too much attention to how the models felt themselves,” Gurney told PsyPost. “I’d like to know how similar the competency judgements between the observer and the model are. If someone claims that certain postures or types of clothing make them feel confident, do others agree? If they feel more confident, do they look more confident to others too? I’d like to think that’s the case, but we’d need to do some more research to find out!”

The new study also suggests that both men and women benefit from dressing smartly. Models in smart attire, such as a suit, were viewed as more competent than models wearing casual attire.

There were some gender differences. Women wearing casual attire were judged more favourably than men wearing casual attire. When it came to smart attire, however, male models were viewed as more competent than female models wearing trouser suits but not female models wearing skirt suits.

The take-home message, Gurney says, is to just be you. (Or perhaps a better dressed version of you.)

“I like to think there’s a positive message to this research, which is that people seem to be rewarded for doing whatever feels natural to them. Some people try to engineer their nonverbal behaviour to make themselves look more confident or powerful, but the best advice seems to be that you should just act natural. As with all nonverbal behaviour, when you try to override it, it can be make you look and feel quite awkward. Nothing beats doing whatever feels natural to you!”

The study, “Dressing up posture: The interactive effects of posture and clothing on competency judgements“, was also co-authored by Neil Howlett, Karen Pine, Megan Tracey, and Rachel Moggridge.