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.

Self-Doubt in a Culture of Certainty

I wouldn’t call my current state an intellectual crisis, though it might be. A crisis implies a dilemma, where one no longer believes in one’s former way of living and thinking yet hesitates before the alternatives. For me, something quieter is going on. I see the possibility of another level of thinking and writing but have not reached it yet. So I question many a sentence of that I have written, many a concept that I have embraced. At this point, I don’t reject my former ideas but see a need to sharpen them. (The sharpening may lead to the discarding of some.)

Such periods of transition can be exhilarating and upsetting at the same time—exhilarating because of the new understandings, upsetting because of the embarrassment. For me, the mix is bitterer than it has to be, because I have taken a culture of certainty a bit too much to heart. We live in a world where people brandish their views (or the views of a group) and lash at those who disagree. Once they say their say, they stand by it. If they waver at all, then they’re perceived as weak. I see through most of this, but some of it gets to me anyway, as it seeps into everyday life.

To think well, you need some removal from that environment. You need room to consider whether you might be wrong—or whether you might have used a word carelessly or failed to consider a possibility. None of that is weakness, unless it turns into self-indulgence. The self-criticism, or assessment of one’s thoughts and words, needs both sustenance and defense.

It’s difficult to find a place for uncertainty. As a teacher, one often has to act more certain than one is. I don’t mean that one pretends to know things one doesn’t know, or states things as fact that are open to question. (I do that sometimes without meaning to do so; the words slip out of me, and I catch them.) Rather, one has to present the material in a coherent manner, and that often involves simplifications. I often walk out of class asking myself questions about the lesson I just presented or about statements I made. It is good to do this, if I then have time to think through those questions and read carefully. Often there’s insufficient time; I have to rush to the next class, correct hundreds of homework assignments, attend meetings, and catch up with paperwork.

So the time left in the day for thinking is scarce, and one must take good care to guard it. It is all too easy to get into an online discussion or argument where neither side is looking to be enriched and where little ultimately gets said. It is easy, also, to sound wiser than one is when in an ephemeral setting—to be a vanishing frog croaking over a vanishing marsh. How much effort I have put, at times, into blog comments that were later forgotten (as far as I know) by all involved!

Also, it is not just a matter of thinking over what one has said. One must read a great deal (of carefully chosen books) in order to think well. The books that help me think better are those with discernment and wit; those that go far beyond the slipshod; those that jolt me wisely, not cheaply; those that hold beauty. I have commented recently on one such book; I have more thoughts about it but will let them work in my mind. Other books have been on my mind too. In order to read such books, one must set aside protected time for them.

I speak in terms of protection because interruptions and temptations are many. In particular, one is tempted (or I have been tempted) to seek the “quick fix” of blogging and other online writing. I don’t take this to extremes—and I put thought into what I do post online—yet I know the satisfaction of getting responses (however few), including those that don’t challenge me. In subtle ways one can shortchange one’s intellectual life for a short-lived kick, a sense that one’s words reach someone. I want to do more than reach someone. I want to get to the bone of things worth saying—and say them in that bony yet graceful way. I want to say it in a book, because then it’s less likely to be read in a rush. (People do read books for quick “takeaways,” but it’s possible to make clear that your book is not of that sort.)

That’s the other side of it. At some point uncertainty must come to an end; one must lay out that sentence. That must not happen too soon, but it must happen. If holds back for fear of saying something incorrect or incomplete, then the fools (including one’s own internal fools) will have their way. Blaise Pascal said, “Yes; but you must wager. It is not optional. You are embarked.”  This applies to the writer as it does to to the person choosing whether or not to believe in God. One must say something, if that is what one has set out to do. But learning when to say it and when to hold back–learning how long to work on something before putting it forward–takes staunchness, vigilance, and a strong sense of measure.