Amy Cuddy: Does Body Language Shape Who You Are? Body language affects how others see us, but it may also change how we see ourselves. Social psychologist Amy Cuddy shows how "power posing" can affect our brains, and might even have an impact on our chances for success.
NPR logo

Does Body Language Shape Who You Are?

  • Download
  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript
Does Body Language Shape Who You Are?

Does Body Language Shape Who You Are?

  • Download
  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript


So up until this point, the kind of communication we've been hearing about is language, right. Words we speak or write or text - basically, things we have near-complete control over. But the thing is you don't have complete control over how you communicate because a big part of it happens unconsciously, which brings us to Harvard psychologist and professor Amy Cuddy, who teaches at the Business School.

AMY CUDDY: At least half of communication is through nonverbal signals, and that includes - that includes vocal cues like your pitch and how quickly you're speaking and how much range you show. So the language, I think, is at least smaller than most of us believe it is.

RAZ: Amy Cuddy studies nonverbal communication - the way you stand, how you move your hands, or the way you furrow your eyebrows. Things we do that send signals to other people about what we're like in that very moment. But she also studies how those same signals affect the way we think about ourselves. Take a listen to Amy Cuddy on the TED stage.


CUDDY: So when we think of nonverbals, we think of how we judge others, how they judge us and what the outcomes are. We tend to forget, though, the other audience that's influenced by our nonverbals - and that's ourselves. We are also influenced by our nonverbals - our thoughts and our feelings and our physiology. So what nonverbals am I talking about? I'm a social psychologist. I study prejudice and I teach at a competitive business school, so it was inevitable that I would become interested in power dynamics. I became especially interested in nonverbal expressions of power and dominance.

RAZ: Though, a few years ago, Amy got frustrated by something that tends to happen at super-competitive places like Harvard Business School. And it's that male students tend to dominate classroom discussions, and women are more likely to stay quiet. And Amy wanted to see if she could smash up that power dynamic.


CUDDY: This is what we did. We decided to bring people into the lab and run a little experiment. And these people adopted, for two minutes, either high-power poses or low-power poses.

RAZ: Power poses. And a lot of the science on this comes from the animal world. So, you know, animals that are scared, they're trying to stay hidden from predators. They crunch up and they get small and then when they want to stand their ground, they go big.

CUDDY: Through postures that are open, that are expansive and that occupy space.

RAZ: So for instance...

CUDDY: It's the Wonder Woman pose and it's the Superman pose.

RAZ: Wide stance, chest out, hands on hips.

CUDDY: That's one of them. Another one is sitting, putting your feet up on your desk and leaning back, putting your hands behind your head with your elbows out.

RAZ: Oh, OK. I got you. Yep.

CUDDY: We call that the CEO pose. So try the CEO pose.

RAZ: Ahh. Yeah. I'm doing that. That's good.

CUDDY: So you're sitting, but you're still spread out. You know, you're still making yourself big.

RAZ: Yeah.

CUDDY: A third one is what my collaborator Dana Carney calls the starfish pose. And that's, you know - it's basically the victory pose. So you have your arms up in a V, but you also have your feet spread apart.

RAZ: Do it. Let's do it. Let's do it right now. Stand up.

CUDDY: All right.

RAZ: I'm going to do it right now. OK. I'm just a little bit off mic. I'm doing the Wonder Woman right now. OK...

CUDDY: All right.

RAZ: We're going to do it. Let's do it.

CUDDY: I'm going to do the starfish.

RAZ: All right. OK.

CUDDY: All right.

RAZ: Ahh. That's good.

CUDDY: Feeling better.

RAZ: It's great. I mean, this is crazy. It looks totally ridiculous, but somehow there's like, a message coming to my brain saying go out and conquer the world.

CUDDY: Right, there's a message going to your brain telling you - your body is telling you that you're powerful.

RAZ: Do we know, like, what happens inside of you, like, physiologically when you do that? Is there actually a process that takes place that makes you feel that way?

CUDDY: What we looked at, Dana Carney, Andy Yap and I - those are my two main collaborators in this work - we decided to look at hormones because there are hormones that we know are linked to feeling powerful or being in a position of leadership. And those two hormones are testosterone and the other one is cortisol. So it turns out, people who are powerful and animals that are powerful tend to have relatively high testosterone and relatively low cortisol.

And that's true for men and women. And so we decided to look at whether or not power posing could actually change those hormones. So we put people in these power poses for two minutes or in low power poses and we take a saliva sample. And what we find is that after two minutes, they are experiencing very, very big changes in those hormone levels. So in other words, for two minutes, standing like Wonder Woman in a tiny room can basically lead you to physiologically, in some ways, look like someone who has an enormous amount of power.

RAZ: Wow. Just by standing there, like, with your hands on your hips.

CUDDY: Exactly. So think about this in contrast to - OK, so think about Stuart Smalley.

RAZ: Oh, yes.

CUDDY: And I know that this is not...

RAZ: He's now a U.S. senator.

CUDDY: I know. I know he is.

RAZ: Yes. Al Franken.

CUDDY: But, OK, so what did he say? I'm good enough, I'm smart enough and doggonit...

RAZ: And doggonit.

CUDDY: ...People like me.

RAZ: Yes.

CUDDY: You know, so that's what people think of when they think of self-affirmation or self-affirming tools. They think about, you know...

RAZ: A mantra or something.

CUDDY: Right. Here's the problem with that. If you don't believe it already, that's why you're in that situation. So that's the beauty and the elegance of this as an intervention. Instead of verbally telling yourself that you actually are fantastic, you stand, you know, with your arms in a V and your body tells yourself you're great.


CUDDY: When I tell people about this, that our bodies change our minds and our minds can change our behavior and our behavior can change our outcomes, they say to me I don't - it feels fake. Right. So I said, fake it till you make it. Like, I don't - it's not me. I don't want to get there only to feel like I'm not supposed to be here. And that really resonated with me because I want to tell you a little story about being an imposter and feeling like I'm not supposed to be here. When I was 19, I was in a really bad car accident. I was thrown out of a car, rolled several times. I was thrown from the car. And I woke up in a head injury rehab ward. And I had been withdrawn from college. And I learned that my IQ had dropped by two standard deviations, which was very traumatic. I knew my IQ because I had identified with being smart, and I had been called gifted as a child. So I'm taken out of college. I keep trying to go back. They say you're not going to finish college. Like just, you know - there are other things for you to do, but that's not going to work out for you.

So I really struggled with this. And I have to say, having your identity taken from you - your core identity, and for me, it was being smart - having that taken from you, there's nothing that leaves you feeling more powerless than that. So I felt entirely powerless. I worked and worked and worked. And I got lucky and worked and got lucky and worked. Eventually I graduated from college. It took me four years longer than my peers. And I convinced someone - my angel advisor, Susan Fiske, to take me on. And so I ended up at Princeton. And I was like, I am not supposed to be here, I am an imposter. And the night before my first-year talk - and the first-year talk at Princeton is a 20-minute talk to 20 people, that's it. I was so afraid of being found out the next day that I called her and said I'm quitting. She was like, you are not quitting because I took a gamble on you and you're staying. You're going to stay and this is what you're going to do - you are going to fake it. You're just going to do it and do it and do it even if you're terrified and just paralyzed and having an out-of-body experience, until you have this moment where you say, oh, my gosh, I'm doing it - like, I have become this. I am actually doing this. So that's what I did. Five years in grad school. A few years, you know, I'm at Northwestern. I moved to Harvard. I'm at Harvard. I'm not really thinking about it anymore, but for a long time, I had been thinking - not supposed to be here, not supposed to be here.

So the end of my first year at Harvard, a student who had not talked in class the entire semester who I had said, look, you've got to participate or else you're going to fail, came into my office. I really didn't know her at all. And she said - she came in totally defeated and she said, I'm not supposed to be here. And that was the moment for me because two things happened. One was that I realized, oh, my gosh, I don't feel like that anymore. You know, I don't feel that anymore, but she does and I get that feeling. And the second was: she is supposed to be here, like, she can fake it. She can become it. So I was like, yes, you are. You are supposed to be here. And tomorrow you are going to fake it. You're going to make yourself powerful. And...


CUDDY: And you're going to go into the classroom and you are going to give the best comment ever, you know. And she gave the best comment ever. And people turned around and they were like, oh, my God, I didn't even notice her sitting there, you know. Tiny tweaks can lead to big changes. So this is two minutes. Two minutes. Two minutes. Two minutes. Before you go into the next stressful evaluative situation, configure your brain to cope the best in that situation. Get your testosterone up. Get your cortisol down. And also, I'm going to ask you to share this science because the people who can use it the most are the ones with no resources and no status and no power. Give it to them because they can do it in private. They need their bodies, privacy and two minutes, and it can significantly change the outcomes of their life. Thank you.


RAZ: Amy Cuddy's TED Talk has been seen by nearly 8 million people. She gets hundreds of letters each week from people who say those two simple minutes have really changed their lives.


JULIETTE AND THE LICKS: (Singing) That's right. I know you think you know me better than that. I beat your dog 'cause he hit on my cat. I wipe my face off and give your kisses back, baby. You're speaking my language, baby. You're speaking my language, baby. You're speaking my language...

RAZ: Hey, thanks for listening to the show this week - spoken and unspoken. If you missed any of it, if you want to hear more or if you want to find out more about who was on it, check out You can also find many, many more TED Talks at And you can download this show through iTunes or through the NPR smartphone app. I'm Guy Raz. You've been listening to ideas worth spreading here on the TED Radio Hour from NPR.

Copyright © 2013 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.