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. But why not work with the flaws, give them full attention and acknowledgment, and proceed from there?

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. (Granted, many TED talks have this combination.) 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.

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 yours for the taking. 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). These hyperbolic statements weaken the authors’ otherwise compelling points. A TED talk is supposed to put forth a big idea–but any idea, no matter how large, benefits from challenge. Ideas and doubts go together; if you can’t question an idea–at any level, from any angle–it turns into dogma.

What to do? Questioning Cuddy’s statement, and statements like it, requires doubt and the ability to work with it. (Andrew King gives some excellent suggestions on how to think critically–in the true sense of the phrase–about scientific findings.) 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.

Update: TED has changed the title of Cuddy’s talk from “Your Body Language Shapes Who You Are” to “Your Body Language May Shape How You Are.” In addition, the talk’s page on the TED website has a “Criticism & updates” section, last updated in August 2017. Both are steps in the right direction.

Note: I made some revisions to this piece (in several stages) long after posting it.

Leave a comment


  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.

    • 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.

  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.

    • 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.)

  3. Hello Mrs Senechal. Thank you for posting this article. I am currently doing my dissertation (sound hyper realism in film) and while I was searching for information I found Amy Cuddy’s video on Youtube. At first , I though I found exaclty what I was looking for.!! Patients can make accurate jugdments based on non verbal behaviour??! wow! And then I started searching for the research, I couldn’t find anything relevant but I found your blog!!! Yes, there is a paper about psysician-patient interactions, but says nothing about sueing people.It only refers to past facts. I found a relevant paper if you are interested. The paper is by Paul Ekman https://1ammce38pkj41n8xkp1iocwe-wpengine.netdna-ssl.com/wp-content/uploads/2013/07/Differential-Communication-Of-Affect-By-Head-And-Body-Cues.pdf
    on page 1 (726) he is referring to a study contacted by Giedt in 1955.

    Thanks again

  4. s klein

     /  June 29, 2018

    The big problem is NOT replication (it is an expected “problem” in science (assuming psychology is a science — which it is not in any rigorous sense mapping to the twin edicts of objectivity and quantification. the real question is “should psychology attempt to be a science?”).

    The problem is that virtually all social psychology (and most other domains within the discipline) are theory-empty hunch based demonstrations. Concepts such as self, attitude, identity, and even so-called hard concepts like “memory” have no serious conceptual grounding (psychology is one of the few fields where operationalism still rules in the formative stages of concept building.

    Heck, despite 1000s (yes 1000s!) of papers and books with the word “mind” prominently in title, we have no rational or empirical warrant for using this meaningless term. What is a “mind”? I defy anyone to provide a convincing and internally coherent account (save for the so-convenient [and internally hypocritical — but such is the age we live in] sidestepping of the neuroscientific epiphenomena maneuver).

    • Thank you for “adding your voice to the mix,” as they say. I agree: how silly to talk about “mind”–or include the word “mind” in a book title (ahem)–when we don’t even know what it is! That said, there’s something to the word. I recommend Robert Frost’s poem “A Considerable Speck,” which ends:

      I have a mind myself and recognize
      Mind when I meet with it in any guise.
      No one can know how glad I am to find
      On any sheet the least display of mind.

  5. aires55

     /  November 9, 2020

    Hello. I was just doing some fact checking for a book someone is writing and who uses Cuddy as an example. I thought you might be interested in reading a 2002 article I found regarding doctor’s tone of voice and malpractice lawsuits: “Surgeons’ tone of voice: A clue to malpractice history” by Ambady et al

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  • “To know that you can do better next time, unrecognizably better, and that there is no next time, and that it is a blessing there is not, there is a thought to be going on with.”

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    Diana Senechal is the author of Republic of Noise: The Loss of Solitude in Schools and Culture and the 2011 winner of the Hiett Prize in the Humanities, awarded by the Dallas Institute of Humanities and Culture. Her second book, Mind over Memes: Passive Listening, Toxic Talk, and Other Modern Language Follies, was published by Rowman & Littlefield in October 2018. In February 2022, Deep Vellum will publish her translation of Gyula Jenei's 2018 poetry collection Mindig Más.

    Since November 2017, she has been teaching English, American civilization, and British civilization at the Varga Katalin Gimnázium in Szolnok, Hungary. From 2011 to 2016, she helped shape and teach the philosophy program at Columbia Secondary School for Math, Science & Engineering in New York City. In 2014, she and her students founded the philosophy journal CONTRARIWISE, which now has international participation and readership. In 2020, at the Varga Katalin Gimnázium, she and her students released the first issue of the online literary journal Folyosó.


    On April 26, 2016, Diana Senechal delivered her talk "Take Away the Takeaway (Including This One)" at TEDx Upper West Side.

    Here is a video from the Dallas Institute's 2015 Education Forum.  Also see the video "Hiett Prize Winners Discuss the Future of the Humanities." 

    On April 19–21, 2014, Diana Senechal took part in a discussion of solitude on BBC World Service's programme The Forum.  

    On February 22, 2013, Diana Senechal was interviewed by Leah Wescott, editor-in-chief of The Cronk of Higher Education. Here is the podcast.


    All blog contents are copyright © Diana Senechal. Anything on this blog may be quoted with proper attribution. Comments are welcome.

    On this blog, Take Away the Takeaway, I discuss literature, music, education, and other things. Some of the pieces are satirical and assigned (for clarity) to the satire category.

    When I revise a piece substantially after posting it, I note this at the end. Minor corrections (e.g., of punctuation and spelling) may go unannounced.

    Speaking of imperfection, my other blog, Megfogalmazások, abounds with imperfect Hungarian.

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