While most people think the face best conveys emotions, actually body language is more accurate indication of how someone really feels, according to a new Princeton study. The researchers asked volunteers to guess from photographs if the person pictured was feeling the thrill of victory, the agony of defeat, or other intense emotions.
Although 80 percent of the volunteers said they would rely solely on the face to tell the difference between pain, pleasure, victory, defeat, joy and grief, in fact those who based their guess on the facial expression only had a 50/50 chance of being right, while those who looked at both the face and the body had much higher accuracy.
In a TED talk that’s had more than 3 million views, Harvard researcher and professor Ann Cuddy reports that our posture and other “nonverbals” influence our decisions and successes.
"We make sweeping judgments based on body language—who we hire or promote, who we ask on a date,” she says. “It doesn’t just describe you, it gives you a presence, helps shape you.” And there are major gender differences in the signals our bodies send, whether we’re in the classroom, the boardroom or on a sports team.
The good news is, we can change our body language—and, perhaps, change our destiny.
The basic difference between expressing control or seeming wimpy is projecting a physically open demeanor or a closed, frightened (or bored) appearance. For example, in a classroom, when the instructor asks a question, some students’ arm shoots up into the air, while others hold their elbow close to your body, only slightly raise their hand.
It’s the first group of students—the eager, confident ones—who are chosen to speak and often get the better grades. Girls typically fall into the latter category. “They chronically feel less powerful than men,” Cuddy says.
The behaviors are linked to our hormones: confidence and feeling empowered are associated with testosterone, the predominant male hormone, while "closed, contractive postures" connect to cortisol, the “stress hormone.”
A dominant posture actually boosts testosterone, giving a person the feelings of power and adaptability that open us up to taking risks and assuming leadership positions. As I recently reported, assertive posture even helps you feel less pain: more testosterone helps to increase pain tolerance, while a lower testosterone level, coupled with elevated cortisol, is linked to lower confidence and reduced pain tolerance.
In a recent study, standing tall was associated with greater tolerance of pain than a submissive posture (hunched shoulders and an inwardly curved torso).
Cuddy suggests everyone perform an “audit” of how they express themselves physically: “What’s your body language communicating to me? What does mine communicate to you?” Lifting our arms high in a “V” and raising our chins, for instance, shows pride—it’s how we behave when we win a competition—while slumping and folding our arms in front of us, in effect making ourselves smaller, shows a lack of confidence.
Interestingly, when we encounter someone who shows assertive body language such as standing with their hands on their hips, we tend to do the opposite, perhaps clutching papers in front of us or looking elsewhere. Likewise, when we’re with a person who doesn’t exude confidence, we often assume the dominant position in the conversation without consciously planning it, keeping eye contact, sitting up a little straighter and keeping our hands on the table.
Try these tactics to exhibit an empowered (but not aggressive) body language:
You can’t practice your power positions during a job interview or formal meeting—but, Cuddy says, you can practice them beforehand. Just before the stressful situation, go into the bathroom and practice holding your high-power poses and eye contact for two minutes, and emerge feeling up to the challenge. “Leave the situation saying, ‘I really got to show who I am.’” Confident body language will enable you to do just that.
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