A Lesson from the Power Pose Debacle

Amy Cuddy’s TED talk on power posing has thirty-seven million views. Its main idea is simple: if you adopt an expansive, authoritative pose, your actual power will increase. For evidence, Cuddy refers to a study she conducted in 2010 with Dana Carney and Andy Yap. Holes and flaws in the study have since been revealed, but Cuddy continues to defend it. Doubt fuels scientific inquiry, but in an era TED-style glamor and two-minute “life hacks” (Cuddy’s own term for the power pose), we find a shortage of such doubt on stage. It is time to tap the reserves.

Recently TED and Cuddy appended a note to the summary of the talk: “Some of the findings presented in this talk have been referenced in an ongoing debate among social scientists about robustness and reproducibility.” In other (and clearer) words: The power pose study has not held up under scrutiny. At least two replications failed; Andrew Gelman, Uri Simonsohn, and others have critiqued it robustly; and Carney, the lead researcher, detailed the study’s flaws—and disavowed all belief in the effect of power poses—in a statement posted on her website. Jesse Singal (New York Magazine) and Tom Bartlett (The Chronicle of Higher Education) have weighed in with analyses of the controversy.

Very well, one might shrug aloud, but what should we, irregular members of the regular public, do? Should we distrust every TED talk? Or should we wait until the experts weigh in? Neither approach is satisfactory. When faced with fantastic scientific claims, one can wield good skepticism and follow one’s doubts and questions.

Before learning of any of this uproar, I found Cuddy’s talk unstable. Instead of making a coherent argument, it bounces between informal observations, personal experiences, and scientific references. In addition, it seems to make an error early on. Two minutes into her talk, Cuddy states that “Nalini Ambady, a researcher at Tufts University, shows that when people watch 30-second soundless clips of real physician-patient interactions, their judgments of the physician’s niceness predict whether or not that physician will be sued.” Which study is this? I have perused the Ambady Lab website, conducted searches, and consulted bibliographies—and I see no sign that the study exists. (If I find that the study does exist, I will post a correction here. Ambady died in 2013, so I cannot ask her directly. I have written to the lab but do not know whether anyone is checking the email.)

In separate studies, Ambady studied surgeons’ tone of voice (by analyzing subjects’ ratings of sound clips where the actual words were muffled) and teachers’ body language (by analyzing subjects’ ratings of soundless video clips). As far as I know, she did not conduct a study with soundless videos of physician-patient interactions. Even her overview articles do not mention such research. Nor did her study of surgeons’ tone of voice make inferences about the likelihood of future lawsuits. It only related tone of voice to existing lawsuit histories.

Anyone can make a mistake. On the TED stage, delivering your talk from memory before an enormous audience, you have a million opportunities to be fallible. This is understandable and forgivable. It is possible that Cuddy conflated the study of physicians’ tone of voice with the study of teachers’ body language. Why make a fuss over this? Well, if a newspaper article were to make such an error, and were anyone to point it out, the editors would subsequently issue a correction. No correction appears on the TED website. Moreover, many people have quoted Cuddy’s own mention of that study without looking into it. It has been taken as fact.

Why did I sense that something was off? First, I doubted that subjects’ responses to a surgeon’s body language predicted whether the doctor would be sued in the future. A lawsuit takes money, time, and energy; I would not sue even the gruffest surgeon unless I had good reason. In other words, the doctor’s personality would only have a secondary or tertiary influence on my decision to sue. On the other hand, it is plausible that doctors with existing lawsuit histories might appear less personable than others—if only because it’s stressful to be sued. Insofar as existing lawsuit histories predict future lawsuits, there might be a weak relation between a physician’s body language and his or her likelihood of being sued in the future. I suspect, though, that the data would be noisy (in a soundless kind of way).

Second, I doubted that there was any study involving videos of physician-patient interactions. Logistical and legal difficulties would stand in the way. With sound recordings—especially where the words are muffled—you can preserve anonymity and privacy; with videos you cannot. As it turns out, I was flat-out wrong; video recording of the doctor’s office has become commonplace, not only for research but for doctors’ own self-assessment.

It matters whether or not this study exists—not only because it has been taken as fact, but because it influences public gullibility. If you believe that a doctor’s body language actually predicts future lawsuits, then you might also believe that power pose effects are real. You might believe that “the vast majority of teachers reports believing that the ideal student is an extrovert as opposed to an introvert” (Susan Cain) or that “the whole purpose of public education throughout the world is to produce university professors” (Ken Robinson). The whole point of a TED talk is to put forth a big idea; alas, an idea’s size has little to do with its quality.

What to do? Questioning Cuddy’s statement, and statements like it, takes no special expertise, only willingness to follow a doubt. If TED were to open itself to doubt, uncertainty, and error—posting corrections, acknowledging errors, and inviting discussion—it could become a genuine intellectual forum. To help bring this about, people must do more than assume a doubting stance. Poses are just poses. Insight requires motion—from questions to investigations to hypotheses to more questions.  This is what makes science interesting and strong.  Science, with all its branches and disciplines, offers not a two-minute “life hack,” but rather the hike of a lifetime. With a mind full of doubt, one can make it.

 

Note: I originally had the phrase “two-minute life hack” in quotes, but Cuddy’s actual phrase is “free no-tech life hack.” She goes on to say that it takes requires changing your posture for two minutes. So I removed “two-minute” from the quotes.

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5 Comments

  1. Susan

     /  December 8, 2016

    What a scary time we are in! In times gone by we could forgive people for being gullible (lack of access to education; lack of access to multiple sources to do things like ‘cross check’…). But today there should be no excuse for what so many are doing: taking a single study or an unfact as fact because it makes them feel good.

    Truth is now officially, a political football. In everyday life, truth is quickly becoming a matter of what is relative to the individual, regardless of the facts. It is becoming increasingly difficult to have a face-to-face conversation, let alone a discussion, about important matters such as “the evidence says otherwise” or “how does a single study become truth?”. There is no anchor outside of feelings and personal belief systems.

    In a nutshell: if it makes me feel good/if I agree then it must be true. Interesting how the “me cult” has evolved over the past few decades.

    Reply
    • Susan, thank you for your comment. Yes, it seems that truth is now customized and personalized. Also, there’s too much emphasis on the “takeaway” of a study and not enough on the logic. It’s possible to treat the takeaway as both truth and opinion at once. Logic isn’t quite as malleable.

      Reply
  2. Great exegesis of how this story/research has evolved and a great example of critical thinking at work. Having shown Amy Cuddy’s video to a few of my students who needed something to boost their confidence before giving a presentation, I can attest to its anecdotal effectiveness, but given what you and others have written, that effectiveness might be based on the placebo effect. I look forward to presenting this article along with Cuddy’s video as an opportunity for my students to reflect on what they believe, why, and how to make those determinations in an era when fake news (and now, science) appears alongside more credible news.

    Reply
    • Thank you for your comment. I am glad that you found something useful in this piece. I have no trouble believing that the power pose helps some people. I just see a big difference between anecdotal and scientific claims. There’s room for both in life–but they have different demands and effects. Science (or what seems like science) carries particular authority in the public understanding and the media. Saying “research has shown” is practically a verbal power pose! (I say this informally and anecdotally; to my knowledge, there is no study even weakly suggesting that people can make themselves more powerful by uttering the phrase “research has shown.” Even if this were demonstrated, it would be a temporary effect, I imagine. Still, in my experience the phrase and its variants carry a lot of clout. Yet again and again, when I look into the actual research, I find something uncertain or lacking, which to me is by far more interesting than the supposed finding.)

      Reply
  1. How to Educate Against Pseudoscience? — Joanne Jacobs

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