By now, you’ve probably heard about psychology’s reproducibility crisis. A number of iconic studies in the field have failed to produce the same results when other researchers take them up later, calling into question the validity of a number of long-held beliefs—from the idea that smiling can make us happier to the notion that we have a limited amount of willpower.
But for the average person, it may feel tough to get too worked up about the whole thing. It’s just a bunch of academic squabbling, right?
Well, no—not really. Not when your physical therapist has fallen in love with the idea of “power poses“ and keeps telling you that all your chronic pain problems could be solved if you just learned to stand like a man. Now the efficacy of power poses is being contested in the scientific community—and one of the researchers who helped introduce the idea is among its detractors.
Power poses broke into the public consciousness following Harvard University psychologist Amy Cuddy’s wildly popular TED talk in 2012. Cuddy also co-authored an influential paper on the subject published by Psychological Science in 2010. The essential theory holds that standing in a powerful, dominant manner has both psychological and physiological benefits. Cuddy, along with co-authors Dana Carney and Andy Yap, wrote that you can raise your testosterone and lower your cortisol levels by merely standing, briefly, in assertive poses. This might include balling your hands into fists, with your feet hip-width apart; resting your palms on a table and leaning forward; sitting with your knees spread (often referred to as “manspreading”); and clasping your hands behind your head while resting your feet on the table.
The power pose theory made a major media splash. Cuddy taught it to Zappos employees, collaborated with Sheryl Sandberg on her “Lean In” initiative, and eventually penned Presence, a 2015 book expanding on her research. Eventually, power poses began to be recommended to people like me.
I have a condition called complex regional pain syndrome, in which damage to my nervous system causes my body to send constant “pain” signals to affected areas, or experience numbness. For safety reasons, I no longer drive. There are days when I am unable to grip household objects; on other days I can’t walk.
One of the many things tracked in the constellation of care for chronic pain patients is their cortisol levels. Cortisol is produced when the body is stressed, and as is often said, there is no greater stress than pain. The nature of the relationship between cortisol levels and pain is still being studied, but some researchers think that heightened cortisol levels may actually make pain worse. My last physical therapist was absolutely convinced that if I started to stand like a boss—like Superman—my cortisol levels would lower, and with that, my pain would decrease.
In theory, my therapist’s idea to use power poses as treatment wasn’t a horrible idea. The original power pose paper suggested that standing in these superhero positions could elevate testosterone levels and decrease cortisol. And since chronic pain isn’t well-understood, much of the therapy for it is speculative. But there’s a difference between an idea that’s experimental, and one that’s founded on questionable science.
The 2010 paper on power poses was never particularly scientifically robust. The research involved just 42 subjects and the effects researchers reported were relatively small. Perhaps most damning, the experimenters involved in running the tests were aware of the hypothesis being tested. A larger 2014 replication study, also published in Psychological Science, did not find that power poses had an effect on participants’ cortisol or testosterone levels, nor did they affect risk-taking behavior.
Then, in September, one of the co-authors of the study, Dana Carney, posted a note on her website stating that she does not believe power pose effects—either psychological or physiological—are real. Carney no longer teaches the material, studies it, or encourages others to study it.
Carney agrees with the conclusions subsequent researchers have drawn in their attempts to replicate power poses, and moreover offers some suggestions as to why. These include the aforementioned researchers’ awareness of the hypothesis in the study she co-authored. She further criticizes the original study for not dealing properly with gender for testosterone analysis, inadvertently p-hacking the data (that is, analyzing it in different ways until you get the desired result), and removing outliers from results. Cuddy responded to her co-author’s criticisms with a statement noting that she is “confident about the key power posing effect on feelings of power” but “agnostic about the effects of expansive posture on hormones,” acknowledging the findings of the larger 2014 study.
Thankfully, I had been skeptical of power poses’ potential as a solution to my pain to begin with. But what about the other people whose therapists may have recommended that they try power poses out, only to have them repeatedly fail? Cuddy’s TED talk has been seen by over 35 million people. You can find discussions of power poses everywhere from The New York Times to the BBC’s Woman’s Hour. Indeed, over the past four years, the study’s findings have been incorporated into everything from leadership training to animal behavior modification.
The issue is much bigger than power poses—it extends across the entire field of psychological research. Doctors, teachers, mental-health workers and other professionals often read the latest research, and may incorporate the latest findings into their recommendations and courses of treatment for the people under their care. If the results of that research can’t be trusted, people could wind up experiencing real harm.
Most folks would agree that if a widely used drug is shown to be harmful, doctors, pharmaceutical companies, and hospitals should be held accountable. If psychology wants the research it produces to be treated as a useful tool for helping people, we should hold it to the same kind of standard.