The relationship between how you feel and how you act may be more complex than you’d think, and this is a very, very good thing.

Because the common, longstanding wisdom is that this relationship is a one-way street: how we feel impacts how we act.

If you feel confident, you speak up more in meetings, you present more elegantly. You also tend to be more assertive, optimistic, and even perform better in things like “thinking on your toes” and abstract thinking.

And when you feel more nervous? You find your presentation fraught with, “ums,” or you find yourself retreating more in meetings than contributing.

It makes total sense, but this “one-way” street is obnoxious.

Because controlling how you feel seems like an impossible task. It may be obvious that when you feel more confident, you act more confident, but how well does telling yourself to, “just be more confident” go when you need it?

In fact, it’s frustrating that “how you feel” often ends up feeling like a crapshoot.

Sure, there are some things that may help. Preparing and practicing may boost confidence some of the time.

But what about all those times when practice and preparation still leads to that “full of nerves” feeling anyway?

New research offers hope in more consistently generating confidence when you need it, and the solution is counter-intuitive.

This research suggests that this annoying “one-way” street between how we feel and how we act isn’t that “one-way” at all.

It suggests that while how we feel does impact how we act, how we act can also impact how we feel.

It was done by Amy Cuddy and colleagues, and is explained nicely in her TEDTalk, but here’s the gist: the researchers tested two groups split into a “high-power pose” group and a “low-power pose” group.

The “high-power pose” group assumed for two minutes the type of pose where you casually take up a lot of space, with chest out and chin up. Basically, the type of pose you naturally take when you feel confident.

The “low-power pose” group assumed for two minutes the type of pose where you fold your arms, or lean forward and cover yourself up. Basically, the type of pose you take when you don’t feel confident.

The researchers wanted to test three things.

First, can body language affect how confident you think you feel?

They had both groups report after the poses on how confident they felt on a series of items, and unsurprisingly, the high-power pose group reported feeling higher confidence.

So assuming a high-power pose can make you think you feel more confident.

Second, the researchers wanted to see if body language affects how you act.

They also had both groups play a game of chance after the poses where they were given the opportunity to gamble.

People who are more confident tend to think they “just get luckier” than the average person, so they typically gamble more and are less risk-averse than their less confident counterparts.

And again, somewhat predictably, the group that assumed the high-power pose gambled more.

So assuming a high-power pose can make you think you feel more confident, and it can make you act more confident, too.

But the most interesting component of the study was the third thing the researchers wanted to test.

Can body language actually affect your hormonal response? Can it actually impact your physiology?

Specifically, the researchers wanted to measure the levels of two hormones: testosterone, a hormone associated with the feeling of powerful and confidence, and cortisol, a hormone associated with the feeling of stress and the body’s stress-response.

People who feel more confident typically have higher levels of testosterone and lower levels of cortisol than people who don’t.

So the researchers took saliva samples of all the participants before and after the poses, and this was the big test of the experiment.

It’s one thing if the “fake it till you make it” adage impacts how you think you feel, or even impacts how you act.

But can “faking it” actually initiate your body’s “confidence” hormonal response?

The answer, fascinatingly, was a resounding “yes.”

The group that assumed the high-power pose saw an increase in testosterone and decrease in cortisol, and the low-power pose saw the reverse. And by pretty staggering amounts, too.

(Testosterone: +20% increase for high-power pose, -10% decrease for low-power pose; Cortisol: -25% decrease for high-power pose, +15% increase for low-power pose)

So is the relationship between how we feel and how we act really a one-way street? Maybe not.

It may be that sometimes you act confident because you feel confident, but that also sometimes you feel confident because you act confident.

And this is a cheap (free), quick (2 minute), seemingly no-harm technique to try out. One that takes an impossible task, “just be more confident,” and swaps it for an easy task, “just assume your go-to confidence position for two minutes.”

And if this means swapping out “ums” for feeling more confident, acting more confident, and even physiologically being more confident, why not strike your best Superman pose before every big presentation moving forward?

photo credit: evoo73 on flickr

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