Stand Up Straight? Our New Research on Posture and First Impressions

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We’ve discussed how Your Body Language Shapes Who You Are in a previous blog post, presenting research from Harvard’s Amy Cuddy showing how using a “power pose”– a confident, expansive posture – for two minutes increases testosterone levels by 20% and decreases cortisol levels by about 25% in our brains. These changes in hormone levels make us more assertive, confident, relaxed, risk tolerant, and fearless. Professor Cuddy also found that those who exhibited power poses before and during an interview were significantly more likely to be hired than those in low-power poses. But we wanted a further understanding of why power posing works, so we decided to take a deeper dive into the science of posture.

First, to explore the existing research – there have been several studies describing how a confident posture affects our behavior. In a study from UC Berkeley, The Ergonomics of Dishonesty, 78% of people in power poses kept overpayment (stealing by omission) compared to 38% of contracted-posture participants. According to the study, “results suggest that environments that expand the body can inadvertently lead us to feel more powerful, and these feelings of power can cause dishonest behavior.”

Conversely, poor posture can have a huge effect on our personal health. A 2007 report by the European Agency for Safety and Health at Work found that Musculoskeletal Disorders (caused by poor posture) accounted for 40% of the costs of workers’ compensation. Statistics from the Occupational Safety and Health Administration show that poor workplace ergonomics account for 34% of all lost workday injuries and illnesses and when done correctly, office ergonomics can increase office productivity by 11%.

However, our posture doesn’t only affect us; it affects the impression we leave on others, which can have a huge impact on what they take away from a presentation. Our research, as recently reported in the Wall Street Journal, demonstrates that 90% of listeners’ first impressions of a speaker remain unchanged after hearing the content of his or her message. Furthermore, we may be better at forming these impressions than we realize. In a study from The University of Texas at Austin, participants viewed full-body photos of people they had never met before. In some of the photos, targets were in a controlled posture with a neutral facial expression, in others the targets were able to pose naturally. Participants were then asked to judge the targets on ten personality traits, such as extraversion, likeability, and self-esteem. When looking at the natural poses, participants were able to guess personality traits with 90% accuracy.

Posture also has relevant implications for professional communications. Science shows us that even before a speech begins, expanding your posture affects your hormone levels. Further research shows that, across cultures, trustworthiness and confidence account for 80 to 90 percent of an overall first impression. Starting with a powerful posture can help us to appear more confident on stage, inspiring trust from the audience. Excellent posture is also important for video presentations. A camera can make it especially difficult to connect with your audience. Strong, expansive postures, where you “personalize the camera” allow you to come across as confident, natural, and in control, even when on screen.

In summary, the science and data demonstrate that posture is important to all forms and contexts of communications because it strongly impacts how you feel as well as how others feel about you.