As practicing statisticians who work in social science, we have a dark secret to reveal: Some of the most glamorous, popular claims in the field are nothing but tabloid fodder. The weakest work with the boldest claims often attracts the most publicity, helped by promotion from newspapers, television, websites, and best-selling books. And members of the educated public typically only get one side of the story.
Consider the case of Amy Cuddy. The Harvard Business School social psychologist is famous for a TED talk, which is among the most popular of all time, and now a book promoting the idea that “a person can, by assuming two simple one-minute poses, embody power and instantly become more powerful.”
In the future, the human race will be ruled by women who look like Phoebe on Friends.
The so-called “power pose” is characterized by “open, expansive postures”—Slate’s Katy Waldman described it as akin to “a cobra rearing and spreading its hood to the sun, or Wonder Woman with her legs apart and her hands on her hips.” In a published paper from 2010, Cuddy and her collaborators Dana Carney and Andy Yap report that such posing can change your life and your hormone levels.
Still, the idea of improving your mood through power posing doesn’t sound wholly implausible. Arnold Schwarzenegger was a careful student of the interplay of posture, self-confidence, and success. Donald Trump has kept using the posture drilled into him at military school. I wouldn’t be surprised if overachievers tend to have better posture than underachievers: that seems like a hypothesis that could be studied. (Of course, that wouldn’t answer the question of which way causality flows, but it would be a start.)
But how exactly are we supposed to test motivational techniques that are premised on subjects believing that they work? If you pay $100 to attend a motivational workshop at which a very confident-sounding Arnold Schwarzenegger teaches the packed audience the posture that helped him intimidate Lou Ferrigno at a cocktail party before the start of a 1970s bodybuilding competition and assures you that it will work for you too in your next job interview, can we really replicate that experience in a psychology laboratory by having a neutral-sounding grad student read instructions from an index card?
The first study had an incentive to persuade subjects that power posing works (that’s news) and the second study had an incentive to persuade subjects that it didn’t work (that’s news). My impression from my years as a market researcher is that people are pretty cooperative about things that the researchers care about more than they care about.
As I’ve pointed out before, a lot of the social sciences in recent decades, having quietly discovered that reality tends to be politically incorrect, have transitioned toward becoming wings of the marketing and motivational industries. There’s a lot of money in persuading people via marketing and motivational speaking.
Granted, much of the prestige of the social sciences comes from the assumption that they work like natural sciences such as astronomy, in other words, permanently: if you discover that the earth goes around the sun, the earth probably is going to keep going around the sun. But then how do you make money off that? It’s been done.