Can 'power posing' like Bolt make you a winner?

Story highlights

  • Psychologists and neuroscientists believe we can change how we feel by how we move or stand
  • Adopting certain "power poses" can increase confidence and lower stress, experts say
  • The key to a power pose is "expansiveness" -- stretching out your body
  • Researchers say you can use poses for success in the workplace and boardroom

Seconds after he smashed the Olympic record for the men's 100m sprint, Jamaican sprinter Usain Bolt delighted crowds by extending one arm skywards, as though about to hurl a bolt of lightning at the stars.

The "Lightning Bolt" pose was instantly mimicked around the world, by fans, pets and CNN readers. But there may well be more to such antics than meets the eye. Psychologists and neuroscientists are increasingly interested in how certain body movements and poses can affect our thinking.

Several studies suggest that we can even use our bodies to improve our confidence and mental functioning, and perform better at work.

"There's not as much separation between body and mind as we once thought," says Sian Beilock, psychology professor at University of Chicago and author of "Choke: What the Secrets of the Brain Reveal about Getting It Right When You Have to."

"A lot of research shows that how we move our body and hold our body affects how we think. It affects our confidence. It can even affect how other people perceive us," she adds.

Is this Bolt's secret weapon? And if so, could the antics -- or tactics -- of professional sportspeople translate to the workplace? Ahead of a big job interview or difficult meeting, can we replicate Usain Bolt's confidence and performance levels merely by striking a lightning bolt pose?

See also: Edwin Moses -- how to be a winner

A study by professors at Columbia and Harvard's business schools ound that by adopting certain "high-power poses" people can be made to feel more powerful, to experience an increase in the "dominance hormone" testosterone (something that occurs naturally before a competition and after a win) and a decrease in cortisol -- the stress hormone that can eventually lead to stress-related illnesses like hypertension.

"Power posing" also made subjects more inclined to take risks, a behavior associated with powerfulness.

The poses that do the trick are ones where you take up as much space as possible. Adept power posers stretch out their limbs with their feet on desks, interlace their fingers behind their heads with their elbows pointing outwards, or perhaps lean commandingly over tables, steepling their fingers.

Usain Bolt takes Games gold in 100m
Usain Bolt takes Games gold in 100m


    Usain Bolt takes Games gold in 100m


Usain Bolt takes Games gold in 100m 02:10

Conversely, those who sit hunched over, their arms pinned to their sides or their hands plopped uselessly in their laps, experience a declining sense of power.

"The pose itself doesn't appear to matter," explains Dana Carney, the study's lead author, now a professor at the University of California, Berkeley. "The feature that's critical is expansiveness. If you think about a bubble that encapsulates the body, how big is that bubble?"

Aiming for Gold: Sanya Richards-Ross
Aiming for Gold: Sanya Richards-Ross


    Aiming for Gold: Sanya Richards-Ross


Aiming for Gold: Sanya Richards-Ross 02:53

Carney says the uptick in testosterone and inhibition of cortisol experienced post-power posing can help a person think more clearly on their feet, as one of her students found.

"She had this really stressful interview for an internship at a fancy company," Carney says. "She joked about being in the elevator standing like a starfish, extending her body to the greatest extent she could. She said she was joking with herself when she did it, but when she got off the elevator she strutted into the meeting and felt much more confident and poised and in control of her thoughts and words.

"We've heard lots of anecdotal examples of folks who have started to use power poses in their daily lives, and it's helped not only buffer them from the physiological stress response, but in a job interview, people were rated as having performed better."

See also: Is happiness the secret of success?

Besides teaching how to create a surge of confidence-boosting testosterone by posing like Usain Bolt in the elevator, executives can learn another lesson from sports psychology: how to channel that confidence into success. After all, the goal isn't just to be confident, but to convert that confidence into a successful outcome.

Bradley Hatfield, Professor of Kinesiology at the University of Maryland, says a crucial element of a good performance is not just self confidence but self mastery.

"Control is very important to an athlete's success, because it means they're drawing a contingency between their effort, their action and the outcome," he says. "That doesn't mean they're going to win, it just means they're not likely to beat themselves. They're going to perform to their potential."

For an athlete taking the field (or for an employee giving a big presentation), Hatfield says posture "could very well be an element of that self-management."

Carney notes that, besides improving performances inwardly by elevating confidence, power posing can also be deployed to devastate our adversaries by making them feel powerless, relative to us.

"If I have to go into battle with someone in a board meeting and this person is always arrogant, I want them to feel a little intimidated," Carney says. "I might want to use power poses, not only for my own wellbeing, but to make them shrink a little bit so they chill out and everyone else can get their ideas heard."

Hostile power posing might also help to unsettle a lubricious business contact. "On Wall Street, CEOs will do these roadshows where they talk to portfolio managers about their company and why they should buy stock," Carney says.

"The portfolio managers need to get to the heart of what's going on with the company and need to put the CEO under pressure because the CEO is trained by investor relations people to spin -- they're like politicians. The portfolio managers would want to try to expand their bodies and make the CEOs feel a little less powerful so they can harvest the information they need."

You may very well have witnessed power posing in your office environment already. But you might not have realized that the guy who sits with his legs stretched out and the woman who stands with her hands planted confidently on her hips could be gaining a little extra confidence by doing so.

Some people are natural power posers, and may be benefiting from it. But with knowledge and a little practice, others can close the gap.

"Understanding what happens in the brain and body gives everyone the tools to perform at their best," says Beilock. "It's not necessarily a fixed feature of ourselves: we can learn how to improve our performance by doing something that we might not have ordinarily thought was important."