It appears as if social science and neuroscience are coming to the same conclusions about human behavior… at least in some instances.
In a Ted Talk entitled Your Body Language Shapes Who You Are, Amy Cuddy speaks about how adjusting your posture for two minutes will change hormone levels, which will either make you more powerful or less powerful. It’s interesting, because the postures Cuddy highlights are clearly instinctive power or submissive moves. The hormones involved? Testosterone (the dominance hormone) and cortisol (the stress hormone).
As people interact with one another, those hormone levels translate to body language. This has serious consequences personally and professionally. As a leader, one of the most important skills I taught my direct reports was how to interpret body language during interviews. Of course, the skill applied to all interpersonal interactions, but it was really during the job interview where we debriefed about what we saw and how we interpreted subliminal clues.
The Effect of Moderating Body Language
What’s interesting about body language, though, is that we frequently forgot to monitor our own. To turn the tables, then, think about the messages that you send. How do you prepare for a job interview? Or interact with your boss on a regular basis? What posture, or status, do you take—peer, subordinate, or power pose?
Before an important meeting, I prepare by envisioning the optimal path the meeting will take and my behavior under perceived circumstances. (Note: ‘optimal path’ is a relative term here. Some of these discussions have been very challenging.) I am purposely trying to regulate body language and chemistry as a means of improving my own behavior, communication, and effecting positive outcomes.
Through the open loop system described by Daniel Goleman, Richard Boyatzis, and Annie McKee, in Primal Leadership, we know that we subliminally communicate with the people around us through the biochemicals we emit. By training your brain to react to situations in a certain way, you regulate hormones, which in turn regulates your stress responses and interactions with other people.
For example, you can keep a room full of people on a constructive track when working through really tough, even contentious issues if you have trained your brain to resist certain negative stress reactions. The research indicates that thinking about an action fires the neurons in the same manner as performing the action itself. It follows that you can establish and deepen neuropathways that will produce the predominant thought patterns and behaviors you want to embed.
Primal Leadership also describes the role mirror neurons have in our ability to relate to (and lead) others. One interesting take away from Cuddy’s Ted Talk: When power comes into play, the mirroring neurons appear to go into hiding. When one person pulls a power posture, others assume submissive poses. These reactions would then translate to changes in testosterone and cortisol levels.
Posture, Cell Memory, and Hormones
By now, you may have figured out that chemistry is where social science and neuroscience dovetail rather nicely. According to Cuddy, adopting a power stance for as little as two minutes increases testosterone by 20% and decreases cortisol by 25%. A sustained submissive posture produces a 10% decrease in testosterone and a 15% increase in cortisol.
“When you think about power, people tended to think only about testosterone, because that was about dominance. But really, power is also about how you react to stress. So, do you want the high-power leader that’s dominant, high on testosterone, but really stress reactive? Probably not, right? You want the person who’s powerful and assertive and dominant, but not very stress reactive, the person who’s laid back.” —Amy Cuddy
If you’ve read Candace Pert’s work*, then you know that cells have memory. You also know that every cell in the human body has neuroreceptors. It follows, then, that whatever posture you choose to take in an effort to mimic or produce an emotion will naturally change your body chemistry and you will start to feel that emotion. Feelings. Thoughts. Physiology. They’re intertwined and together, they drive behavior and attitude.
As Cuddy puts it, “Fake it ’til you make it”… or really, become whoever it is you’re striving to become. These inner body relationships are something to think about before going to work tomorrow, walking into the next meeting with your boss, and even preparing for your next performance evaluation. Attentively changing your body language can make you a super star… and über promotable.
*Note: Pert was the first neuroscientist to discover neuroreceptors in the brain and wrote Molecules of Emotion.