Saturday 1 October 2016

Fake or break - sometimes you have to bluff

Fake it 'til you make it

Published 02/08/2016 | 02:30

Amy Poehler
Amy Poehler

Writing in her book Yes Please, the comedienne and actress Amy Poehler said she does this "weird thing" when she's nervous.

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"I tilt my head back like I am super confident," she writes. "This is my attempt to fake it until I make it, or at the very least make it easier for someone to slit my throat…"

While one might describe Poehler's affectation as a nervous tic, or even just a bizarre habit, Harvard professor and best-selling author Amy Cuddy would probably call it something else entirely.

Cuddy, a social psychologist, rose to prominence when her TED talk, 'Your Body Language Shapes Who You Are', went viral. If she were asked to observe Poehler's head tilt, she'd no doubt describe it as a 'power pose'.

According to Cuddy, when we adopt "expansive, high-power poses" (even if it's just for two minutes in the bathroom before a board meeting), we stimulate higher levels of testosterone (the hormone linked to dominance) while decreasing levels of the stress hormone, cortisol.

"When our body language is confident and open, other people respond in kind, unconsciously reinforcing not only their perception of us but also our perception of ourselves," she adds.

The science behind this phenomenon is known as 'embodied cognition', which, in the simplest of terms, means the body influences the mind just as the mind influences the body.

This hypothesis is currently at the vanguard of cognitive science, yet anyone who practises Eastern movement therapies like yoga, tai chi or martial arts will know that embodied cognition has been exercised for thousands and thousands of years. It's called 'Warrior Pose' for a reason...

Cuddy has extrapolated on the power-pose hypothesis in her more recent books, arguing that we can increase our personal power in all areas of our lives when we embody an attitude of success. "Fake it 'til you become it," she writes. "Do it enough until you actually become it and internalise it."

At first glance, the 'fake it 'til you make it' school of thinking seems to be in conflict with the idea of living authentically. However, Cuddy believes that we must first emulate a state of being before we can authentically inhabit that state of being.

"Presence emerges when we feel personally powerful, which allows us to be acutely attuned to our most sincere selves," she writes.

Her view is echoed by many leading thinkers and philosophers. As Paulo Coelho says: "You must be the person you have never had the courage to be. Gradually, you will discover that you are that person, but until you can see this clearly, you must pretend and invent."

The late Muhammad Ali was another great advocate of faking it 'til you make it. "To be a great champion," he once said, "you must believe you are the best. If you're not, pretend you are."

Of course, there will always be times in life when we just don't have the map: the first year of motherhood, the first month of a new job, the first kiss on a first date.

Even those who seem supremely confident in these situations will admit that they are just especially good at acting.

Unfortunately, not everyone knows this. Perhaps those who lack confidence would be less self-aware if they realised that the vast majority of people are just making it up as they go along...

Alternatively, they could try one of Cuddy's power poses. When we adopt a power pose, we aren't just convincing others of our confidence - we are convincing ourselves. Confidence begets confidence just as competence begets competence.

Cuddy recommends a pose known as The Wonder Woman - as the name suggests, you stand straight, hands on hips, legs wide apart, staring forward (to reiterate, you can do this in private...).

Yet a power pose could even be as simple as sitting straight up in your chair and rolling your shoulders away from your ears when you're feeling stressed at work.

In fact, it's not just our physicality that influences our psychology, as Cuddy explains: "Expanding your body language - through posture, movement and speech - makes you feel more confident and powerful, less anxious and self-absorbed, and generally more positive."

In other words, a power pose could be the language you use in an email (think active verbs over passive verbs) or the polished telephone voice you adopt during a phone call.

This was demonstrated in a study that came out of Wake Forest University, and was published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, which showed that simply acting extroverted created a feedback loop that made participants feel more positive.

"Every single participant in the study was happier when he or she acted extroverted than when he or she acted introverted," said the lead researcher. "Even introverts can act extroverted and become happier by changing their behaviour."

Embodied cognition isn't just a confidence-building tool. A few slow, steady breaths - even when all around you is going too fast - can make you feel calmer. A smile - even a half-hearted one - can make you feel happier. Sometimes you have to bluff to take the pot...

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