'Power posing' also boosts confidence in children, new study shows

The study provides initial evidence that open, strong postures can improve children's mood and self-esteem.

  • Power posing grew in prominence in 2012 after social psychologist Amy Cuddy's famous TED Talk.
  • A new study found that power posing correlates with a positive boost in children's self-esteem and confidence.
  • The debate over power posing remains heated in psychological circles, but there are plenty of other ways parents and teachers can boost children's self-esteem.

    • Parents and teachers worry about children's self-esteem, and with good reason. They want children to feel loved, confident, and proud of what they do. They hope that healthy self-esteem will propel them to challenge themselves in adulthood and strive for meaningful relationships while avoiding the unhealthy self-esteem devils of depression, harsh self-criticism, and unhealthy life habits.

      To that end, parents and teachers shower children with self-esteem boosters. They read children's books starring confidence protagonists (keep standing tall, Molly Lou Melon). They encourage children to pursue hobbies and extracurricular activities they find fulfilling. And they, of course, heap loving-kindness upon them.

      But according to a recent study published in the journal School Psychology International, it's possible parents and teachers have been overlooking a critical yet obvious source of self-esteem boosting: body posture.

      Strike a pose

      A woman strikes a classic power pose. Research suggests this Wonder Woman pose may bolster her confidence (Batman shirt optional).

      (Photo: Juhan Sonin/Flickr)

      The concept of power posing (a.k.a. postural feedback) became a business world fixation in 2012. That year, social psychologist Amy Cuddy presented a TED Talk detailing her 2010 research with psychologist Dana Carney and Andy Tap. It quickly became the second most-watched TED Talk ever.

      The gist of Cuddy's hypothesis is simple. Nonverbals, such as body language, don't just affect how others perceive us; they also change how we perceive ourselves. If we maintain "high-power poses"—that is, postures expressing friendliness, strength, and openness—our minds will interpret those qualities as self-possessed.

      Conversely, "low-power poses" that contort our bodies to be confined, compact, and scrunched up have the opposite effect. In social situations, our minds analyze our body language, perceive us to be equally diminutive, and start pumping in the cortisol.

      Cuddy's research focused on adults, asking study participants to hold high-power or low-power poses for two minutes before a mock interview. The evaluators, who were blind to the pre-interview posturing, chose the high-power posturers more often than their low-power peers.

      And these effects may be more than subconscious self-persuasion; they may be biochemical. Cuddy's research suggests power posing increases testosterone and decreases cortisol levels, the latter being associated with stress while the former promotes assertion, confidence, and comfort.

      Slouching bad for more than a child's posture?

      girl cheering with laptop

      A recent study suggests that power posing's positive effects can also improve confidence and positive feelings in children.

      (Photo: Andrea Piacquadio/Pexels)

      For the new study, researchers wanted to see if these positive effects held true for children.

      "Children from the age of five are able to recognize and interpret the body posture of others," Robert Körner, the study's lead author and a member at the Institute of Psychology at Martin Luther University Halle-Wittenberg, said in a release. He added, "Power posing is the nonverbal expression of power. It involves making very bold gestures and changes in body posture."

      To test this, the researchers conducted an experiment similar to Cuddy's. They separated 108 fourth graders into two groups. One group assumed two open high-power poses for a minute a day. The other group folded their arms and hung their heads, a low-power pose. After posing, both groups completed a series of psychological tests.

      The children who assumed a high-power pose reported higher self-esteem than those who assumed a low-power pose. They also mentioned more positive feelings and better student-teacher relationships. An indirect assessment of the children also showed the high-power pose generated an overall better mood.

      "Here, power posing had the strongest effect on the children's self-esteem," concludes Körner. "Teachers could try and see whether this method helps their students."

      The power of posing up for debate

      But there are caveats. In the release, Körner notes that expectations for the power-posing need to be tempered against scientific reality. In his experiment, the observed effects were short-term, and he warns that the technique should not be considered a treatment. Children or adults with a mental illness should seek treatment from trained professionals.

      Power posing itself has also ignited a heated debate among psychologists. Though Cuddy continues to publish research showing the positive effects of power posing, other researchers have not been able to replicate her results. For example, eleven studies out of Michigan State University could not show the positive effects of power posing on behavioral measures such as job interviews or business negotiations.

      These studies were even reviewed by Dana Carney, one of Cuddy's co-authors for the 2010 study, who has since argued that the evidence doesn't support belief in power posing.

      "There is currently little reason to continue to strongly believe that holding these expansive poses will meaningfully affect people's lives, especially the lives of the low-status or powerless people," Joseph Cesario, MSU associate professor of psychology, said in a release. Cesario co-edits Comprehensive Results in Social Psychology, the scientific journal that published seven of the eleven studies.

      That's how science works, though. Studies show an effect or outcome, other studies try to replicate it, and debate continues until the evidence amasses toward a more uniform direction. Until that debate is settled, however, there are still many other ways parents and teachers can bolster healthy confidence and self-esteem in children.

      A few simple strategies: Don't overpraise children or gush over inherent qualities and abilities. Instead, praise children for their effort and tenacity to foster a growth mindset. Be a role model of not only self-esteem but also self-compassion. Find the balance between offering help but not doing everything for them, which includes knowing when to let go and increase a child's individual responsibility.

      And even if power posing isn't an instant self-esteem booster, that doesn't mean children and parents can't have fun with it.

      Yug, age 7, and Alia, age 10, both entered Let Grow's "Independence Challenge" essay contest.

      Photos: Courtesy of Let Grow
      Sponsored by Charles Koch Foundation
      • The coronavirus pandemic may have a silver lining: It shows how insanely resourceful kids really are.
      • Let Grow, a non-profit promoting independence as a critical part of childhood, ran an "Independence Challenge" essay contest for kids. Here are a few of the amazing essays that came in.
      • Download Let Grow's free Independence Kit with ideas for kids.
      Keep reading Show less

      Divers discover world's largest underwater cave system filled with Mayan mysteries

      Researchers in Mexico discover the longest underwater cave system in the world that's full of invaluable artifacts. 

      Divers of the GAM project. Credit: Herbert Meyrl.
      Technology & Innovation

      Keep reading Show less

      The surprise reason sleep-deprivation kills lies in the gut

      New research establishes an unexpected connection.

      Reactive oxygen species (ROS) accumulate in the gut of sleep-deprived fruit flies, one (left), seven (center) and ten (right) days without sleep.

      Image source: Vaccaro et al, 2020/Harvard Medical School
      Surprising Science
      • A study provides further confirmation that a prolonged lack of sleep can result in early mortality.
      • Surprisingly, the direct cause seems to be a buildup of Reactive Oxygen Species in the gut produced by sleeplessness.
      • When the buildup is neutralized, a normal lifespan is restored.

      We don't have to tell you what it feels like when you don't get enough sleep. A night or two of that can be miserable; long-term sleeplessness is out-and-out debilitating. Though we know from personal experience that we need sleep — our cognitive, metabolic, cardiovascular, and immune functioning depend on it — a lack of it does more than just make you feel like you want to die. It can actually kill you, according to study of rats published in 1989. But why?

      A new study answers that question, and in an unexpected way. It appears that the sleeplessness/death connection has nothing to do with the brain or nervous system as many have assumed — it happens in your gut. Equally amazing, the study's authors were able to reverse the ill effects with antioxidants.

      The study, from researchers at Harvard Medical School (HMS), is published in the journal Cell.

      An unexpected culprit

      The new research examines the mechanisms at play in sleep-deprived fruit flies and in mice — long-term sleep-deprivation experiments with humans are considered ethically iffy.

      What the scientists found is that death from sleep deprivation is always preceded by a buildup of Reactive Oxygen Species (ROS) in the gut. These are not, as their name implies, living organisms. ROS are reactive molecules that are part of the immune system's response to invading microbes, and recent research suggests they're paradoxically key players in normal cell signal transduction and cell cycling as well. However, having an excess of ROS leads to oxidative stress, which is linked to "macromolecular damage and is implicated in various disease states such as atherosclerosis, diabetes, cancer, neurodegeneration, and aging." To prevent this, cellular defenses typically maintain a balance between ROS production and removal.

      "We took an unbiased approach and searched throughout the body for indicators of damage from sleep deprivation," says senior study author Dragana Rogulja, admitting, "We were surprised to find it was the gut that plays a key role in causing death." The accumulation occurred in both sleep-deprived fruit flies and mice.

      "Even more surprising," Rogulja recalls, "we found that premature death could be prevented. Each morning, we would all gather around to look at the flies, with disbelief to be honest. What we saw is that every time we could neutralize ROS in the gut, we could rescue the flies." Fruit flies given any of 11 antioxidant compounds — including melatonin, lipoic acid and NAD — that neutralize ROS buildups remained active and lived a normal length of time in spite of sleep deprivation. (The researchers note that these antioxidants did not extend the lifespans of non-sleep deprived control subjects.)

      fly with thought bubble that says "What? I'm awake!"

      Image source: Tomasz Klejdysz/Shutterstock/Big Think

      The experiments

      The study's tests were managed by co-first authors Alexandra Vaccaro and Yosef Kaplan Dor, both research fellows at HMS.

      You may wonder how you compel a fruit fly to sleep, or for that matter, how you keep one awake. The researchers ascertained that fruit flies doze off in response to being shaken, and thus were the control subjects induced to snooze in their individual, warmed tubes. Each subject occupied its own 29 °C (84F) tube.

      For their sleepless cohort, fruit flies were genetically manipulated to express a heat-sensitive protein in specific neurons. These neurons are known to suppress sleep, and did so — the fruit flies' activity levels, or lack thereof, were tracked using infrared beams.

      Starting at Day 10 of sleep deprivation, fruit flies began dying, with all of them dead by Day 20. Control flies lived up to 40 days.

      The scientists sought out markers that would indicate cell damage in their sleepless subjects. They saw no difference in brain tissue and elsewhere between the well-rested and sleep-deprived fruit flies, with the exception of one fruit fly.

      However, in the guts of sleep-deprived fruit flies was a massive accumulation of ROS, which peaked around Day 10. Says Vaccaro, "We found that sleep-deprived flies were dying at the same pace, every time, and when we looked at markers of cell damage and death, the one tissue that really stood out was the gut." She adds, "I remember when we did the first experiment, you could immediately tell under the microscope that there was a striking difference. That almost never happens in lab research."

      The experiments were repeated with mice who were gently kept awake for five days. Again, ROS built up over time in their small and large intestines but nowhere else.

      As noted above, the administering of antioxidants alleviated the effect of the ROS buildup. In addition, flies that were modified to overproduce gut antioxidant enzymes were found to be immune to the damaging effects of sleep deprivation.

      The research leaves some important questions unanswered. Says Kaplan Dor, "We still don't know why sleep loss causes ROS accumulation in the gut, and why this is lethal." He hypothesizes, "Sleep deprivation could directly affect the gut, but the trigger may also originate in the brain. Similarly, death could be due to damage in the gut or because high levels of ROS have systemic effects, or some combination of these."

      The HMS researchers are now investigating the chemical pathways by which sleep-deprivation triggers the ROS buildup, and the means by which the ROS wreak cell havoc.

      "We need to understand the biology of how sleep deprivation damages the body so that we can find ways to prevent this harm," says Rogulja.

      Referring to the value of this study to humans, she notes,"So many of us are chronically sleep deprived. Even if we know staying up late every night is bad, we still do it. We believe we've identified a central issue that, when eliminated, allows for survival without sleep, at least in fruit flies."

      Withdrawal symptoms from antidepressants can last over a year, new study finds

      We must rethink the "chemical imbalance" theory of mental health.

      Bottles of antidepressant pills named (L-R) Wellbutrin, Paxil, Fluoxetine and Lexapro are shown March 23, 2004 photographed in Miami, Florida.

      Photo Illustration by Joe Raedle/Getty Images
      Surprising Science
      • A new review found that withdrawal symptoms from antidepressants and antipsychotics can last for over a year.
      • Side effects from SSRIs, SNRIs, and antipsychotics last longer than benzodiazepines like Valium or Prozac.
      • The global antidepressant market is expected to reach $28.6 billion this year.
      Keep reading Show less
      Scroll down to load more…