Fake It ’til You Make It: Posture Lowers Stress

Is it possible, by deliberately assuming a simple two-minute high-power pose, to instantly become more powerful? In a study conducted conjointly at Harvard and Columbia universities, researchers have shown that humans and animals can increase the beneficial effects of power by deliberately assuming open, expansive postures for as little as two minutes, and suffer the effects of powerlessness by deliberately assuming closed, constrictive postures. The study results revealed that assuming certain postures almost immediately produces neuroendocrine and behavioral changes. High-power postures (widespread limbs, enlargement of occupied space, and spreading out) trigger a rise in testosterone, a decrease in cortisol, a perception of power and a willingness to take more risks. Assuming low-power postures (limbs touching the torso, minimizing occupied space, and collapsed inwardly) produces the opposite effects.


By simply changing our physical posture, we can better prepare our body and our mind to take on stressful situations. Intentionally assuming certain postures can have the immediate effect of improving self-confidence in such situations, e.g., a public speech, a job interview, disagreeing with someone, preparing for a sports challenge or even taking a financial risk. As it turns out, “Fake it ‘til you make it” is not just a phrase:  even minimal postural changes, if sustained over time, can  improve our health and well-being, even if we may often feel quite powerless due to lack of resources, occupying a lower rank in an organization, or being part of a low-power social group.

How Does Posture Reduce Health Risks?

forrest-gump-p111Although short-term high cortisol levels are a normal reaction to stressors large and small, being in a position of lower power (at work, at home, in social groups) has been shown to cause a higher incidence of stress-related illnesses (Cohen et al., 2006). For people who hold positions of power or are able to exercise more power at work, at home or in social situations, the contrary is true. Their typical combination of high testosterone coupled with low cortisol is often associated with leadership capabilities and a higher resistance to disease. The stress-marking hormone cortisol is lower when we are in a position of power, indicating a lower level of reactivity to stress. The continuous state of alarm and elevated cortisol experienced by low-power individuals can produce negative health consequences such as inflammation, high emotional reactivity, a high allostatic load, stress-related illnesses (irritable bowel syndrome) and memory loss.

In short, arranging our body posture to indicate power (regardless of whether we feel powerful or not) causes specific advantages and adaptive psychological, physiological, and behavioral changes, with more positive subsequent behavioral choices. A simple two-minute pose can embody power and instantly make us more powerful. Who’d have thunk it?