It’s the closest modern life has come to Harry Potter’s Felix Felicis potion: Stand up tall, with your feet spread and your hands on your hips, and, thanks to real changes in your body’s chemistry, you’ll feel confident, ready to take on the world—even if you aren’t.
The technique, nicknamed “power posing,” first appeared in a psychology journal in 2010, and then hit the public stage two years later, after co-author Amy Cuddy, a Harvard University psychologist, gave a blockbuster TED talk about the findings. Even before the public fell in love with the idea, though, other social psychologists were skeptical.
In science, that’s not a particularly bad thing: Scientists are supposed to pick apart studies, find their weak points and try to reach the same results independently—it’s how to make sure that what seems like the right answer really is.
Seven years after the original paper was published, that process is still playing out—but the evidence is pretty heavily stacked against the power pose. Earlier this year, a set of nine new papers designed to try to settle the question for good added to that evidence.
In order to do so, the researchers tapped into a technique that may make for more robust scientific results in the first place. The approach is meant to combat what many scientists see as the biggest weakness of the publishing process: Only papers with eye-catching results get published. Papers that don’t show any connection between the variable and the factor it was expected to affect? Those are rarely published.
Joseph Cesario, a psychologist at Michigan State University, co-edits a journal that takes a different approach, called preregistration. It makes decisions based on a research plan rather than choosing whether to publish finished papers. “What got reviewed was whether it’s a sound scientific way of addressing an interesting question,” Cesario said.
That means scientists can’t adjust aspects of their experiments or analyses as they go to try to make results seem more striking. But it also means researchers can incorporate feedback from other scientists before they even run the experiments, rather than only after they’ve drafted papers about them.
For the power pose papers, Cesario recruited Dana Carney—a psychologist at the University of California, Berkeley, and a co-author on the study that first identified power posing—to join that review team. That meant researchers could check with her to make sure the replication portions of their experiments matched the original work.
Carney already had suspicions about the power pose work. Since the original publication, standards in the field have changed, particularly about how many individuals need to be included to make sure the results aren’t simply due to chance. And early replications had sometimes supported the original findings and sometimes undermined them.
But because those studies didn’t all use precisely the same steps, there was no way to know whether findings that didn’t match were caused by the slight differences in methods or by the power pose phenomenon not being a real thing. Preregistration, with Carney consulting on precisely what she did, eliminated that uncertainty.
Then, the researchers went off to actually do the experiments and gather some findings. “All the papers started coming in, and it wasn’t great news,” Carney said, noting that not one paper replicated the original findings. “That was a little disheartening, but it is what it is.”
Now she says she doesn’t think the power pose is a real phenomenon, not after this much evidence has piled up. “You gotta update your beliefs at that point,” she said. She added that she doesn’t know where her co-author Cuddy, who did not respond to an interview request, stands on the topic.
Carney says this is precisely how science is supposed to work. “In some ways, it’s gorgeous,” she says, although she adds that in this particular case, the process was far more vitriolic than it ought to have been. (At one point, Cuddy was receiving death threats.)
If you tried a power pose and felt something, you aren’t alone. Carney says she understands the way the public has latched on to the idea. “I have the same experience they have, where I feel it in my body too, but personal experience is anecdotal, not scientific.”
Cesario says it’s true that people who have used a power pose do tend to report that they feel a little bit more powerful. The problem is that the perceived mental boost doesn’t seem to have any consequences—not on negotiation skills, nor on cognition, nor on performance in a simulated job interview.
He’s sympathetic to how appealing the lure of the power pose is—it’s much easier to stand up tall and take up space than it is to build a skill you’re lacking. “Because of its appeal, it’s all the more important to get that right, to get the right answer here,” Cesario said. “We do know that confidence is very good, and it relates to success when that confidence comes from something real, when it comes from having real skills, from having real strength, from being competent.” But he’s confident the science says a power pose shortcut is just a trick.