Winners, losers, and posers: The effect of power poses on testosterone and risk-taking following competition

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Abstract

A contribution to a special issue on Hormones and Human Competition.

The effect of postural power displays (i.e. power poses) on hormone levels and decision-making has recently been challenged. While Carney et al. (2010) found that holding brief postural displays of power leads to increased testosterone, decreased cortisol and greater economic risk taking, this failed to replicate in a recent high-powered study (Ranehill et al. 2015). It has been put forward that subtle differences in social context may account for the differences in results. Power displays naturally occur within the context of competitions, as do changes in hormones, and researchers have yet to examine the effects of poses within this ecologically relevant context. Using a large sample of 247 male participants, natural winners and losers of a physical competition were randomly assigned to hold a low, neutral or high-power postural display. We found no main effect of pose type on testosterone, cortisol, risk or feelings of power. Winners assigned to a high-power pose had a relative, albeit small, rise in testosterone compared to winners who held neutral or low-power poses. For losers, we found little evidence that high-power poses lead to increased testosterone relative to those holding neutral or low-powered poses. If anything, the reverse was observed – losers had a reduction in testosterone after holding high-power poses. To the extent that changes in testosterone modulate social behaviors adaptively, it is possible that the relative reduction in testosterone observed in losers taking high-powered poses is designed to inhibit further “winner-like” behavior that could result in continued defeat and harm. Still, effects were small, multiple comparisons were made, and the results ran counter to our predictions. We thus treat these conclusions as preliminary.

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