Power Poses and Learning Postures

There’s a long and interesting article in the New York Times Magazine that all researchers in the social (and perhaps all) sciences do well to read. It’s about the “revolution” in statistical methods that has been going on for some time now and that we ignore at our peril. (The key text is already mentioned in my readings section.) But it’s also about more inframethodological concerns, specifically the way we deal with our mistakes.

The article’s author, Susan Dominus, clearly has a great deal of sympathy for the predicament that her subject, Amy Cuddy, has found herself in. As result, we get a great deal of information about Cuddy’s emotional response to having her work on “power posing” criticized in a very public way. I strongly recommend reading Andrew Gelman’s reflections on the article and the issue at his blog as well (also on my blogroll, of course). There’s some lively discussion in the comments, which is both a discussion of critical posture and a series of examples. Indeed, I think this whole thing is a master class by Andrew Gelman in giving and taking criticism!

For my part, I think Cuddy should just have acknowledged that the effect of power posing has not been scientifically demonstrated after all and stayed on the tenure track. I don’t want to get too much into it here, but I do want to make a confession of sorts. In my writing seminars I actually recommend a form of “power posing” that I learned from Benjamin Zander:

My version of this advice isn’t about making mistakes but discovering you don’t know what you are are talking about as you begin your writing moment. Don’t put your head in your hands and moan about how stupid you are. Throw up your arms and say, “Interesting! Ignorance!” and then spend 18 or 27 minutes exploring the depth and breadth of your own own unknowning. Ignorance is an important experience to face in research; indeed, it should be a familiar one. People who are afraid of their ignorance will have a hard time learning anything. Let’s call this the Learning Posture.

Now, I’m careful not to claim that I have science to back me up on this. It just strikes me as a good attitude to have, a good pose to strike, when you’re trying to write down what you know. And, as Zander points out, it’s an excellent attitude to adopt when you make mistakes. Be fascinated by them! When you make them, get into them, be curious about them, try to figure them out. This is where you’re going to learn something.

Ironically (and as Dominus begins by suggesting), perhaps Cuddy should have taken her own advice and struck a power pose when she began to receive criticism. “I’m wrong? How fascinating! Let’s get into it.” This is certainly what I recommend doing. Hopefully that is also the lesson that you, dear reader, will take away from all this.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *