How power posing can improve your chances

Students Ellie Ní Chadhla and Liadh Ní Dhonnabháin practising their 'power pose' with teacher Lorraine Marron in Coláiste Choilm, Ballincollig, Co Cork. Picture: Daragh McSweeney/Provision

Adopting a ‘Wonder Woman’ stance can boost your confidence and exam success, writes Helen O’Callaghan

Minutes to go. Mock exams are about to start. Forget French verbs and algebra equations. It’s time to strike your Wonder Woman pose.

As pre-Leaving and Junior Cert exams continue this week, students in one Cork school are likely to be swapping last-minute swotting for pre-exam power posing.

At Coláiste Choilm, Ballincollig, two transition year students have proven that power posing for two minutes à la Wonder Woman — confident stance, taking up space with feet and elbow positioning — builds confidence and helps students keep a cool head in an exam.

Liadh Ní Dhonnabháin and Ellie Ní Chadhla brought their experiment — “to investigate if power posing gives students confidence” — to the BT Young Scientist and Technology Exhibition in January. “We’ve all been in exam situations, where you go in and start running disaster movies in your head — what if I go blank, what if I don’t remember anything,” says Liadh, 16.

“You finally get your paper and you’ve worked yourself into a panic. It’s impossible to think. You can’t answer the first question. You get worse as the exam goes on and you come out feeling really distraught. Then you realise you could, in fact, have answered all the questions if you’d stayed calm.”

She and Ellie wanted to solve the problem. Their experiment was decided after they listened on the internet to a TED Talk by Harvard-based social psychologist Amy Cuddy. She proved that assuming a confident stance for two minutes (elbows/arms out, chin raised, posture expansive) increased testosterone by 20% and decreased stress hormone cortisol by 25%. Adopting body language associated with power makes you feel more powerful.

“Amy Cuddy applied it in an interview situation with adults to see if it would increase their confidence and it did,” says Liadh. “We wanted to see would it do the same for students doing exams.”

Next step was finding 200 willing first year students at Coláiste Choilm. Liadh and Ellie divided them into three groups. Group A were asked to assume a power pose for two minutes. “It’s a non-verbal behaviour communicating a sense of confidence, assertiveness and power — you take up physical space and make yourself as big as possible,” explains Liadh.

These students were given a choice of power poses: stand up straight, looking right ahead with legs apart and hands on hips; sit with feet up on table and hands behind head with elbows out in triangular shape; stand up, two hands on table and lean forward.

“Most students went for the Wonder Woman pose – hands on hips, legs apart. It’s the easiest, best one. We’ve all seen it a lot. Even the boys did it — they didn’t mind because Superman does a similar stance.”

Students in Group B were asked to assume a negative stance for two minutes. “This is when a person closes up and wraps their body up, making themselves as small as possible,” says Liadh. Examples include sitting with feet crossed, leaning over so posture is bad, hand on neck; or sitting with hands on table and head bent. Students in Group C were not asked to pose.

Groups A and B were asked to rate their confidence on a scale of one to 11 before and after doing their respective poses. Group A’s average went up from 8.15 to 9.15; group B’s went down from 8.62 pre-pose to 7.95 afterwards.

All three groups were then asked to do a Stroop test. This tests mental vitality and flexibility using words and colours. “It’s often used in lab experiments to make people feel stressed. We did it to make them feel as if they were in a real exam situation,” explains Liadh.

After the test, the students rated their confidence again.

Group A’s had risen slightly. Group B’s had dropped to 6.74, while the neutral group, who hadn’t posed, also reported decreased confidence.

“When we looked at group A’s results, we concluded the power pose acted as a shield and protected the participant throughout the exam. This proves doing a power pose before an exam can keep a student calm and confident through the exam and achieve the best results he or she is able to get,” says Liadh.

On the other hand, posing negatively before an exam meant students lacked confidence and left the exam feeling stressed.

Liadh says she is now much more aware of her posture. “I make sure I stand up straight and give out a confident vibe.”

Ellie, 15, believes power posing should be on the school curriculum. “Learning power poses would hopefully maintain confidence,” she says.

Aside from exams, Liadh and Ellie say they’ll use power poses in other scenarios. “Like before going out with new friends, you could just very quickly do a power pose to make you feel more confident,” says Ellie. And what about going on a date? “I’d most definitely do it,” says Liadh. Ellie says she would too.

The girls were mentored on their project, by teacher Lorraine Marron. Lorraine says she probably unconsciously uses power poses in a teaching role. “But I’m absolutely more aware of power poses now,” she says, adding that she likes Wonder Woman’s stance.

“As a woman looking at her, she epitomises power – the wide stance, the hands on the hips, as if to say ‘Bring it on, I can deal with whatever you throw at me’.”


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