60 Seconds with Lora Park

Spreading your limbs out to take up more space can convey a sense of dominance, and even make you feel powerful. Apes do it. Humans, too. But do expansive postures affect all people the same way? UB psychology researcher Lora Park thinks not.

Photograph Getty Images

“[Darwin] suggested that these were universal expressions. We know now that psychological experiences we think are universal may not be.”
Lora Park, UB psychology researcher

What is the relationship of posture to feelings of power?
Research has found that expansive body postures can lead to greater risk-taking and cause physiological changes like increased testosterone.

What’s the significance of this to society?
People in powerful roles, like bosses, are more likely to show these types of expansive postures. We see this in the animal kingdom as well, where the alpha chimp takes up a lot of space to display its status and dominance.

Why did you start investigating power poses?
I was flipping through a journal when I saw an article about power poses, and what caught my eye was a picture of a posture that was described as powerful. It showed a person with his or her feet on the desk, hands behind the head.

Coming from an Asian background, if I envisioned my parents doing that, or even myself, it seemed very unnatural. It seemed to violate cultural norms that we’re familiar with. So that got me thinking: How universal are these postures?

What did you find?
We did a series of studies and found that participants had different experiences depending on where they were from.

Americans felt more powerful and took more risks when they put their bodies in expansive postures. But for East Asians, the expansive feet-on-the-desk posture did not lead to greater feelings of power. This posture was perceived as violating East Asian cultural norms of humility, modesty and restraint.

What’s the takeaway here?
Darwin talked about expansive postures being related to pride and displays of status. He suggested that these were universal expressions, across humans and animals.

But we know now that psychological experiences we think are universal may not be. We have to acknowledge that where we come from—our cultural background— has a powerful effect on how we think, feel and behave.

Power Poses

(1) Expansive feet-on-desk pose (2) Expansive upright sitting pose (3) Expansive hands-on-desk pose. Illustrations by Bryon Thompson