If it Seems too Good to be True…
In 2010, social psychologists Amy Cuddy, Dana Carney and Andy Yap conducted an experiment theorizing you could change your life in 60 seconds. They hypothesized you could calm your nerves in the face of a life-altering, big-risk-big-reward situation, such as a job interview or asking for a raise, by simply standing in a “power pose” for one minute. You know, the superhero stance – feet apart, hands on hips. They concluded adopting such a stance not only made test subjects perceive themselves as more powerful, it resulted in a quantifiable hormonal change. Specifically, a comparison of blood samples drawn before and after the experiment indicated subjects had higher levels of confidence-boosting testosterone and lower levels of the stress-inducing cortisol after one minute of doing their best Wonder Woman impression.
Two years later, Cuddy introduced the study to the public in what has become the second most watched TED Talk of all time. At that time, you couldn’t read a lifestyle magazine or blog with female demographic without hearing about Power Posing as a lifehack. It was not only irresistible to the self-help industry which prizes quick fixes, but it was downright zeitgeist-y. This was, after all, the peak hype era for Sheryl Sandberg’s “Lean In”. The notion that if women just went at their careers full-throttle, they could totally undo deeply-ingrained, macro-level gender inequality and misogyny in the workplace dovetails nicely with the notion that all it takes to convince your boss you’re worth that raise is standing with your hands on your hips for a minute.
There is just one problem. The study is bullshit.
The Replication Crisis
Twelve studies have subsequently attempted to replicate Cuddy’s original findings and all have failed. As a result, Power Posing became emblematic of what has been termed psychological research’s Replication Crisis. The Replication Crisis is statistical evidence that conclusions drawn in upwards of 70% of published psychological studies are not reproducible. There are numerous reasons for this breakdown in scientific method rigor, but a primary reason identified by researchers is the concept of P-hacking.
So what’s P-hacking? Well, researchers use a measure of statistical significance known as the P-value. The P stands for probable. Researchers must evaluate if the results they are seeing are probable if there is no phenomena to observe. Those examining studies flagged in the Replication Crisis observed a pattern of scientists cherry-picking the results supporting their hypothesis while discounting those that did not. Therefore, P-hacking is using skewed data to make findings seem more probable. The implication is confirmation bias is tainting the rigorously objective approach that is the Scientific Method.
It is important to note I am not suggesting psychology is unscientific. Nor is that the conclusion presented by those who are seeking to address the problem. (Side note: it is worth pointing out that Amy Cuddy and Dana Carney becoming emblematic of a crisis much bigger than their study is soaked in misogyny.) Rather, as someone who is keenly interested in what makes people tick, I’m a big fan of psychological research. Likewise, as someone who wants to do a little bit better each day and share what I learn with others, it is essential the information I use is backed by objective science. Otherwise, I’m just treading in disturbing New Age waters where the psychobabble tide is high and charlatans (sharklatans?) peddling nonsense like The Secret are constantly circling. It is gross, exploitative and damaging; an $11 billion industry preying on unhappiness.
So what is a responsible person with an interest self-improvement to do?
Does it really matter?
As the debunking of Cuddy’s claims spread, so did anecdotal evidence to the contrary. Lots of people who followed the study’s advice responded by saying Power Posing worked for them. Were these folks deluding themselves? Not if you believe in the power of the placebo effect.
According to Brain Sense by Dr. Faith Brynie, “The placebo effect is not deception, fluke, experimenter bias, or statistical anomaly. It is, instead, a product of expectation. The human brain anticipates outcomes, and anticipation produces those outcomes. The placebo effect is self-fulfilling prophecy, and it follows the patterns you’d predict if the brain were, indeed, producing its own desired outcomes.”
Therefore, those who reported successfully using Power Posing prior to acing a presentation or getting a job weren’t wrong. They just weren’t right for the reasons they thought.
The Good and the Bad of the Placebo Effect
So, given positive outcomes derived from something deemed junk science, where is the harm? While the Replication Crisis is of grave concern to researchers and the public good which relies on them to adhere to scientific rigor, does it matter if individuals hang on to seemingly healthy habits or strategies based on dubious findings? The answer is yes and no.
On one hand, there is reliable (and, yes, reproducible) evidence that the placebo effect, whether it comes in the form of an actual sugar pill, the power of suggestion or a scientifically-questionable lifehack, can be a valid approach to managing the symptoms of conditions ranging from migraines to depression and anxiety to arthritis.
Researchers are quick to point out that those who enjoy a positive placebo effect aren’t thinking themselves into being cured. Rather, there are yet-to-be-fully-understood psychological and physiological mechanisms at work diminishing both the objective presentation and subjective perception of those symptoms.
So, what could possibly be wrong with that? As a recent study explored, if someone suffering from asthma can avoid taking a medication with undesirable side effects AND still feel better, what could be the harm in riding the placebo effect’s good vibes?
The problem is this study and multiple others have concluded that while individuals receiving placebo treatments often perceive their symptoms as improving, their condition has not improved when measured objectively. For the aforementioned asthma patients trusting in their perception and the placebo can be fatal.
But what if you don’t have a life-threatening illness and you just want to have the courage to be more assertive at work, I don’t see the harm in continuing to use a junk-science strategy if it yields positive results for you. However, there is a body of well-regarded, peer-reviewed psychological research out there and among it, you may find a strategy that is both genuinely helpful and scientifically sound.
So, here is a list of activities that have repeatedly demonstrated in studies to improve the quality of our lives both physically and mentally. Best of all, you can do any one of them right now and free of charge.
- Regular Exercise – whatever you like and you know you will stick with
- Getting a full night of good quality sleep
- Expressing gratitude
- Learning a new skill
- Listening to music
- Journaling – even if it is one sentence or to write down an idea
My list is far from complete. Do you have a favorite science-based method for self-improvement? I’d love to hear about it.