The science of success and maybe prejudice?

As a graduate student slowly approaching the end of my graduate career, I am often interested in answering the questions, “What gets people a job?”  and “What helps improve success?”  Of course, we all know that a great CV is one of the biggest components of getting an academic job or at least your foot in the door.  But other, more social components may factor in as well.

Research by Harvard psychologist Amy Cuddy demonstrates that both how warmly we feel toward others and how competent we view them will determine what emotions we feel toward them.  Not surprisingly, viewing someone as both competent and warm leads to the best outcomes and most positive emotion (admiring) while viewing someone as cold and incompetent leads to the most negative emotion (contempt).  So when looking for a job or to climb up the professional ladder of success, it is important to be competent at what you do AND warm toward others.

That’s not all.  The positions one places one’s self in also matter.  Individuals who demonstrate more powerful, dominant body postures (e.g., sitting up straight, raising hand fully, etc.) are more likely to “rise to the top” than those who demonstrate more low-power positions (e.g., crossing one’s legs, leaning in).  Interestingly, Cuddy and colleagues found in a recent Psychological Science article that when men and women were put in high-power poses (vs. low-power poses) for two minutes, they had increases in testosterone levels, decreases in cortisol levels, and were more likely to gamble, a trait (risk-taking) associated with dominant individuals.  Thus, it appears that posing in high-power positions not only makes one appear more dominant to others but changes neuroendocrine levels and risk tolerance.


Because I’m a prejudice researcher, my mind naturally wonders to the implications this has for prejudice.  Cuddy notes that her research on the warm/cold and competent/incompetent evaluations of others certainly plays a role in how we act towards those we have stereotypes about.  For instance, Cuddy notes that if one feels cold toward an out-group member and views them as incompetent, he or she is more likely to feel contempt toward them.  This emotion of contempt is likely to lead to either “passive harm (neglect, ignoring) or active harm (harassment, violence)” (Craig Lambert, Harvard magazine).

However, I think her recent research on the connection between neuroendocrine levels and power positions also holds implications for prejudice.  While testosterone is known to be a more masculine, dominant hormone, it is also strongly correlated with more aggressive behaviors.  Thus, if a non-minority member (e.g., Caucasian) holds a high-power pose while a minority member (e.g., African American) holds a low-power pose, we should expect, given Cuddy and colleagues’ findings, that the non-minority member would have higher levels of testosterone.  These higher levels of testosterone could, in turn, lead to the non-minority member to engage in more aggressive or active harm behaviors and attitudes than if he or she took a low-power pose.


A person’s likelihood of engaging in these low- or high-power poses could be based on stereotypes held toward that group.  For instance, if Caucasians held the stereotype that they were “superior” to African Americans or held a position of higher rank than African Americans, they may be more likely to take on high-power poses.  These high-power poses could perpetuate the stereotype by increasing testosterone and dominant traits in the Caucasian, causing the Caucasian to be more aggressive or hostile toward the African American.  Obviously, future research is needed to test this idea.

But either way, make sure you are warm, competent, and have high-power poses when on the job market.  It could be the difference between an offer or not.

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About Megan Johnson Shen

I am a social psychologist graduating with my Ph.D. from Baylor University this May and moving to NYC this summer to start a new job as a postdoctoral researcher at Mt. Sinai School of Medicine in the Cancer Prevention and Control Department. I love the brain, human behavior, and anything to do with understanding them better. I love research and a good dinner party. Fine wine and cheese - I'm there. Interesting experimental data? I'll probably show for that too. View all posts by Megan Johnson Shen

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