We’ve all been there. That interview for a life-changing job that doesn’t go to plan. A business pitch to potential backers that falls at the first hurdle. Even a dinner party at which a friend’s forceful views make us feel weak and lacking in confidence.
So it is not surprising that an entire publishing industry has grown around motivational books that promise to teach us how to win friends and influence people.
The problem is that we are, essentially, riddled with self-doubt. Social psychologist and author Amy Cuddy has an intriguing solution: such problems aren’t all in the mind – they’re in the body, too.
“It’s critical to know that changing the way you carry your body will change the way you feel about yourself,” she says. “So sit up straight, not to respect others, but yourself. It will make you more affecting.”
This might sound like faintly embarrassing cod body-language psychology – if it wasn’t coming from this engaging 43-year-old from Pennsylvania. In the rarefied circles of the TED (Technology, Entertainment, Design) circuit, she is something of a hero – her 2012 “power posing” TED talk has had 30 million online views.
At least in part, it is probably because Cuddy is endearingly normal. And her new book, Presence – a guide to increasing self-confidence, which spiralled out of her famous TED appearance – is as entertaining as it is scientific
“It felt very much like, as a social psychologist, I needed to offer tools rather than just documenting a problem,” she says from a London hotel room before yet another sold out talk.
Here is someone who gets stopped in the airport by people affected by her simple ideas – why does she think she struck such a chord?
“Because everybody worries about how to deal with high-stakes moments, particularly when there is some sort of social judgement involved,” she says. “People go into these situations and suddenly act like frightened animals instead of the strong people they could be.
“That makes it even more difficult to access the knowledge and skills they need to do well in that situation. Even worse, that feeling prevents you from engaging because you’re worrying about what people are thinking of you.”
So the “presence” that Cuddy talks about in the book isn’t some kind of Zen-like state of calm – it is the ability to, literally, be present in stressful situations, and to give the best of yourself.
What gives Cuddy more credibility than most is that her theories – written in breezily accessible prose, sprinkled with chats with talented and successful individuals such as author Neil Gaiman and actor Julianne Moore – are backed up by hard science.
Interestingly, for all Cuddy’s fascinating personal history (she suffered a traumatic brain injury as a student and had to “relearn how to learn”), she believes it’s the science of what she has to say that people respond to the most.
“It gives people license to believe this stuff, absolutely,” she says.
“The science stops people having to think they have to go on a ‘journey’ with Presence. It’s just one thing they can take out of the toolbox when they need to.”
So what else should be in the toolbox? In the book, Cuddy talks of Claude Steele’s famous self-affirmation techniques – defeating a threat before it even exists by affirming the best parts of yourself.
But for Cuddy, it’s not enough just to pump yourself up by shouting “I am a winner” over and over again in the mirror.
Actually, the affirmation should come before that, via writing down and reminding yourself of your best values, strengths and traits – however relevant or irrelevant they might be to the forthcoming situation – and trusting in them.
Do that, tests show, and the cortisol hormone – which reveals itself in times of stress – is significantly lowered.
“It’s such an incredible exercise in preparing people for stressful situations,” she says. “Affirming your core values gets you in touch with who you are and how you can show that to others.
“And it’s reassuring, because you know you are still that person when you leave the stressful process. You will know that you have done everything you could.” But although her book is about the mindset, it’s really about the body.
From a scientific perspective, says Cuddy, body language is constantly communicating information to your mind – so you can trick it into sending a signal to relax and perform well.
All of this, however, does raise the faintly terrifying prospect of a world full of overly confident people believing in the power of their presence and holding themselves somewhat awkwardly in power poses in social situations. Cuddy laughs at the suggestion.
“Personal power does not corrupt, it won’t turn you into a jerk,” she says. “And Presence is absolutely not about faking the qualities you don’t have – it’s tricking yourself into believing the qualities you do have and being able to access them.”