Power Poser: When big ideas go bad

Tom Bartlett in The Chronicle of Higher Education:

Photo_79537_portrait_325x488Amy Cuddy’s TED talk on power poses has been viewed 37 million times. For comparison purposes, Kanye West’s video “Famous,” which features naked celebrities in bed together, has been viewed 21 million times. Cuddy’s talk is the second-most-watched video in TED history, behind only Ken Robinson’s “Do Schools Kill Creativity?” — and, at its current pace, will eventually take over the No. 1 spot, thereby making power poses the most popular idea ever on the most popular idea platform. The talk led to a book, Presence, which was published a year ago by Little, Brown and became a best seller. For the promotional tour, Cuddy, an associate professor of business administration at Harvard Business School, popped up on an impressive list of television shows, including Good Morning America, Today, Morning Joe, and The Late Show With Stephen Colbert. She received the sort of publicity roll-out usually reserved for celebrities. And why not? Cuddy had become a celebrity in her own right. In Presence, she writes about getting recognized in airports and snapping selfies with fans. They spot her and immediately strike a power pose — feet apart, hands on hips, head thrown back. “Hey! It’s TED girl!” they cry.

As scientific ideas go, power poses could hardly be more clickable. For starters, it’s simple to understand: Standing like Wonder Woman or in another confident pose for two minutes is enough, Cuddy informs us, to transform a timid also-ran into a fierce go-getter. Even better, this life hack comes straight from an Ivy League professor who published her findings in a peer-reviewed journal bolstered by charts and percentages and properly formatted citations. This wasn’t feel-good conjecture; this was rock-solid research from a bona fide scientist. What went unmentioned on those shows, however, was that the study supporting Cuddy’s claims had begun to crumble. Well before the publication of her book, another research team had tried and failed to replicate the most-touted finding — that assuming a power pose leads to significant hormonal changes. In addition, the intriguing discovery that power poses made subjects more willing to take risks seemed dubious. In the wake of the apparent debunking, online science watchdogs sank their teeth into the study, picking apart its methodology and declaring its results risible. Then, in late September, one of Cuddy’s co-authors, Dana Carney, did something unusual: She posted a detailed mea culpa on her website, siding with the study’s critics. “I do not believe that ‘power pose’ effects are real,” wrote Carney, an associate professor of psychology at the University of California at Berkeley’s business school. Her note went on to say that, while the research had been performed in good faith, the data were “flimsy” and the design and analysis, in retrospect, unsound. She discouraged other researchers from wasting their time on power poses. So how did arguably the most popular idea on the internet end up on the scientific ash heap?

More here.

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