Power Poseur: The lure of lucrative pseudoscience and the crisis of untrustworthiness of psychology

This is the second of two segments of Mind the Brain aimed at redirecting the conversation concerning power posing to the importance of conflicts of interest in promoting and protecting its scientific status. 

The market value of many lines of products offered to consumers depends on their claims of being “science-based”. Products from psychologists that invoke wondrous mind-body or brain-behavior connections are particularly attractive. My colleagues and I have repeatedly scrutinized such claims, sometimes reanalyzing the original data, and consistently find the claims false or premature and exaggerated.

There is so little risk and so much money and fame to be gained in promoting questionable and even junk psychological science to lay audiences. Professional organizations confer celebrity status on psychologists who succeed, provide them with forums and free publicity that enhance their credibility, and protect their claims of being “science-based” from critics.

How much money academics make from popular books, corporate talks, and workshops and how much media attention they garner serve as alternative criteria for a successful career, sometimes seeming to be valued more than the traditional ones of quality and quantity of publications and the amount of grant funding obtained.

Efforts to improve the trustworthiness of what psychologists publish in peer-reviewed have no parallel in any efforts to improve the accuracy of what psychologists say to the public outside of the scientific literature.

By the following reasoning, there may be limits to how much the former efforts at reform can succeed without the latter. In the hypercompetitive marketplace, only the most dramatic claims gain attention. Seldom are the results of rigorously done, transparently reported scientific work sufficiently strong and  unambiguous enough to back up the claims with the broadest appeal, especially in psychology. Psychologists who remain in academic setting but want to sell market their merchandise to consumers face a dilemma: How much do they have to hype and distort their findings in peer-reviewed journals to fit with what they say to the public?

It important for readers of scientific articles to know that authors are engaged in these outside activities and have pressure to obtain particular results. The temptation of being able to make bold claims clash with the requirements to conduct solid science and report results transparently and completely. Let readers decide if this matters for their receptivity to what authors say in peer-reviewed articles by having information available to them. But almost never is a conflict of interest declared. Just search articles in Psychological Science and see if you can find a single declaration of a COI, even when the authors have booking agents and give high priced corporate talks and seminars.

The discussion of the quality of science backing power posing should have been shorter.

Up until now, much attention to power posing in academic circles has been devoted to the quality of the science behind it, whether results can be independently replicated, and whether critics have behaved badly. The last segment of Mind the Brain examined the faulty science of the original power posing paper in Psychological Science and showed why it could not contribute a credible effect size to the literature.

The discussion of the science behind power posing should have been much shorter and should have reached a definitive conclusion: the original power posing paper should never have been published in Psychological Science. Once the paper had been published, a succession of editors failed in their expanded Pottery-Barn responsibility to publish critiques by Steven J. Stanton  and by Marcus Crede and Leigh A. Phillips that were quite reasonable in their substance and tone. As is almost always the case, bad science was accorded an incumbent advantage once it was published. Any disparagement or criticism of this paper would be held by editors to strict and even impossibly high standards if it were to be published. Let’s review the bad science uncovered in the last blog. Readers who are familiar with that post can skip to the next section.

A brief unvarnished summary of the bad science of the original power posing paper has a biobehavioral intervention study

Reviewers of the original paper should have balked at the uninformative and inaccurate abstract. Minimally, readers need to know at the outset that there were only 42 participants (26 females and 16 males) in the study comparing high power versus low-power poses. Studies with so few participants cannot be expected to provide reproducible effect sizes. Furthermore, there is no basis for claiming that results held for both men and women because that claim depended on analyses with even smaller numbers. Note the 16 males were distributed in some unknown way across the two conditions. If power is fixed by the smaller cell size, even the optimal 8 males/cell is well below contributing an effect size. Any apparent significant effects in this study are likely to be meaning imposed on noise.

The end sentence in the abstract is an outrageously untrue statement of results. Yet, as we will see, it served as the basis of a product launch worth in the seven-figure range that was already taking shape:

That a person can, by assuming two simple 1-minute poses, embody power and instantly become more powerful has real-world, actionable implications.

Aside from the small sample size, as an author, editor and critic for in clinical and health psychology for over 40 years, I greet a claim of ‘real-world actionable implications’ from two one-minute manipulations of participants’ posture with extreme skepticism. My skepticism grows as we delve into the details of the study.

Investigators’ collecting a single pair of pre-post assessments of salivary cortisol is at best a meaningless ritual, and can contribute nothing to understanding what is going on in the study at a hormonal level.

Men in this age range of participants in this study have six times more testosterone than women. Statistical “control” of testosterone by controlling for gender is a meaningless gesture producing uninterpretable results. Controlling for baseline testosterone in analyses of cortisol and vice versa eliminates any faint signal in the loud noise of the hormonal data.

Although it was intended as a manipulation check (and subsequently as claimed as evidence of the effect of power posing on feelings),  the crude subjective self-report ratings of how “powerful” and “in charge” on a 1-4 scale could simply communicate the experimenters’ expectancies to participants. Endorsing whether they felt more powerful indicated how smart participants were and if they were go along with the purpose of the study. Inferences beyond that uninteresting finding require external validation.

In clinical and health psychology trials, we are quite wary of simple subjective self-report analogue scales, particularly when there is poor control of the unblinded experimenters’ behavior and what they communicate to participants.

The gambling task lacks external validation. Low stakes could simply reduce it to another communication of experimenters’ expectancies. Note that the saliva assessments were obtained after completion of the task and if there is any confidence left in the assessments of hormones, this is an important confound.

The unblinded experimenters’ physically placing participants in either 2 1-minute high power or 2 1-minute low-power poses is a weird, unvalidated experimental manipulation that could not have the anticipated effects on hormonal levels. Neither high- nor low-power poses are credible, but the hypothesis particularly strains credibility that they low-power pose would actually raise cortisol, if cortisol assessments in the study had any meaning at all.

Analyses were not accurately described, and statistical controls of any kind with such a small sample  are likely to add to spurious findings. The statistical controls in this study were particularly inappropriate and there is evidence of the investigators choosing the analyses to present after the results were known.

There is no there there: The original power pose paper did not introduce a credible effect size into the literature.

The published paper cannot introduce a credible effect size into the scientific literature. Power posing may be an interesting and important idea that deserves careful scientific study but if any future study of the idea would be “first ever,” not a replication of the  Psychological Science article. The two commentaries that were blocked from publication in Psychological Science but published elsewhere amplify any dismissal of the paper, but we are already well over the top. But then there is the extraordinary repudiation of the paper by the first author and her exposure of the exploitation of investigator degrees of freedom and outright p-hacking.  How many stakes do you have to plunge into the heart of a vampire idea?

Product launch

 Even before the power posing article appeared in Psychological Science, Amy Cuddy was promoting it at Harvard, first  in Power Posing: Fake It Until You Make It  in Harvard Business School’s Working Knowledge: Business Research for Business Leaders. Shortly afterwards was the redundant but elaborated article in Harvard Magazine, subtitled Amy Cuddy probes snap judgments, warm feelings, and how to become an “alpha dog.”

Amy Cuddy is the middle author on the actual Psychological Science between first author Dana Carney and third author, Dana Carney’s graduate student Andy J Yap. Yet, the Harvard Magazine article lists Cuddy first. The Harvard Magazine article is also noteworthy in unveiling what would grow into Cuddy’s redemptive self narrative, although Susan Fiske’s role as  as the “attachment figure” who nurtures Cuddy’s  realization of her inner potential was only hinted.

QUITE LITERALLY BY ACCIDENT, Cuddy became a psychologist. In high school and in college at the University of Colorado at Boulder, she was a serious ballet dancer who worked as a roller-skating waitress at the celebrated L.A. Diner. But one night, she was riding in a car whose driver fell asleep at 4:00 A.M. while doing 90 miles per hour in Wyoming; the accident landed Cuddy in the hospital with severe head trauma and “diffuse axonal injury,” she says. “It’s hard to predict the outcome after that type of injury, and there’s not much they can do for you.”

Cuddy had to take years off from school and “relearn how to learn,” she explains. “I knew I was gifted–I knew my IQ, and didn’t think it could change. But it went down by two standard deviations after the injury. I worked hard to recover those abilities and studied circles around everyone. I listened to Mozart–I was willing to try anything!” Two years later her IQ was back. And she could dance again.

Yup, leading up to promoting the idea that overcoming circumstances and getting what you want is as simple as adopitng these 2 minutes of  behavioral manipulation.

The last line of the Psychological Science abstract was easily fashioned into the pseudoscientific basis for this ease of changing behavior and outcomes, which now include the success of venture-capital pitches:

 

Tiny changes that people can make can lead to some pretty dramatic outcomes,” Cuddy reports. This is true because changing one’s own mindset sets up a positive feedback loop with the neuroendocrine secretions, and also changes the mindset of others. The success of venture-capital pitches to investors apparently turns, in fact, on nonverbal factors like “how comfortable and charismatic you are.”

Soon, The New York Times columnist David Brooks   placed power posing solidly within the positive thinking product line of positive psychology, even if Cuddy had no need to go out on that circuit: “If you act powerfully, you will begin to think powerfully.”

In 2011, both first author Dana Carney and Amy Cuddy received the Rising Star Award from the Association for Psychological Science (APS) for having “already made great advancements in science” Carney cited her power posing paper as one that she liked. Cuddy didn’t nominate the paper, but reported er recent work examined “how brief nonverbal expressions of competence/power and warmth/connection actually alter the neuroendocrine levels, expressions, and behaviors of the people making the expressions, even when the expressions are “posed.”

The same year, In 2011, Cuddy also appeared at PopTech, which is a”global community of innovators, working together to expand the edge of change” with tickets selling for $2,000. According to an article in The Chronicle of Higher Education :

When her turn came, Cuddy stood on stage in front of a jumbo screen showing Lynda Carter as Wonder Woman while that TV show’s triumphant theme song announced the professor’s arrival (“All the world is waiting for you! And the power you possess!”). After the music stopped, Cuddy proceeded to explain the science of power poses to a room filled with would-be innovators eager to expand the edge of change.

But that performance was just a warm up for Cuddy’s TedGlobal Talk which has now received almost 42 million views.

A Ted Global talk that can serve as a model for all Ted talks: Your body language may shape who you are  

This link takes you not only to Amy Cuddy’s Ted Global talk but to a transcript in 49 different languages

 Amy Cuddy’s TedGlobal Talk is brilliantly crafted and masterfully delivered. It has two key threads. The first thread is what David McAdams has described as an obligatory personal narrative of a redeemed self.  McAdams summarizes the basic structure:

As I move forward in life, many bad things come my way—sin, sickness, abuse, addiction, injustice, poverty, stagnation. But bad things often lead to good outcomes—my suffering is redeemed. Redemption comes to me in the form of atonement, recovery, emancipation, enlightenment, upward social mobility, and/or the actualization of my good inner self. As the plot unfolds, I continue to grow and progress. I bear fruit; I give back; I offer a unique contribution.

This is interwoven with a second thread, the claims of the strong science of power pose derived from the Psychological Science article. Without the science thread, the talk is reduced to a motivational talk of the genre of Oprah Winfrey or Navy Seal Admiral William McRaven Sharing Reasons You Should Make Bed Everyday

It is not clear that we should hold the redeemed self of a Ted Talk to the criteria of historical truth. Does it  really matter whether  Amy Cuddy’s IQ temporarily fell two standard deviations after an auto accident (13:22)? That Cuddy’s “angel adviser Susan Fiske saved her from feeling like an imposter with the pep talk that inspired the “fake it until you make it” theme of power posing (17:03)? That Cuddy similarly transformed the life of her graduate student (18:47) with:

So I was like, “Yes, you are! You are supposed to be here! And tomorrow you’re going to fake it, you’re going to make yourself powerful, and, you know –

This last segment of the Ted talk is best viewed, rather than read in the transcript. It brings Cuddy to tears and the cheering, clapping audience to their feet. And Cuddy wraps up with her takeaway message:

The last thing I’m going to leave you with is this. Tiny tweaks can lead to big changes. So, this is two minutes. Two minutes, two minutes, two minutes. Before you go into the next stressful evaluative situation, for two minutes, try doing this, in the elevator, in a bathroom stall, at your desk behind closed doors. That’s what you want to do. Configure your brain to cope the best in that situation. Get your testosterone up. Get your cortisol down. Don’t leave that situation feeling like, oh, I didn’t show them who I am. Leave that situation feeling like, I really feel like I got to say who I am and show who I am.

So I want to ask you first, you know, both to try power posing, and also I want to ask you to share the science, because this is simple. I don’t have ego involved in this. (Laughter) Give it away. Share it with people, because the people who can use it the most are the ones with no resources and no technology and no status and no power. Give it to them because they can do it in private. They need their bodies, privacy and two minutes, and it can significantly change the outcomes of their life.

Who cares if the story is literal historical truth? Maybe we should not. But I think psychologists should care about the misrepresentation of the study. For that matter, anyone concerned with truth in advertising to consumers. Anyone who believes that consumers have the right to fair and accurate portrayal of science in being offered products, whether anti-aging cream, acupuncture, or self-help merchandise:

Here’s what we find on testosterone. From their baseline when they come in, high-power people experience about a 20-percent increase, and low-power people experience about a 10-percent decrease. So again, two minutes, and you get these changes. Here’s what you get on cortisol. High-power people experience about a 25-percent decrease, and the low-power people experience about a 15-percent increase. So two minutes lead to these hormonal changes that configure your brain to basically be either assertive, confident and comfortable, or really stress-reactive, and feeling sort of shut down. And we’ve all had the feeling, right? So it seems that our nonverbals do govern how we think and feel about ourselves, so it’s not just others, but it’s also ourselves. Also, our bodies change our minds.

Why should we care? Buying into such simple solutions prepares consumers to accept other outrageous claims. It can be a gateway drug for other quack treatments like Harvard psychologist Ellen Langer’s claims that changing mindset can overcome advanced cancer.

Unwarranted claims breaks down the barriers between evidence-based recommendations and nonsense. Such claims discourages consumers from accepting more deliverable promises that evidence-based interventions like psychotherapy can indeed make a difference, but they take work and effort, and effects can be modest. Who would invest time and money in cognitive behavior therapy, when two one-minute self-manipulations can transform lives? Like all unrealistic promises of redemption, such advice may ultimately lead people to blame themselves when they don’t overcome adversity- after all it is so simple  and just a matter of taking charge of your life. Their predicament indicates that they did not take charge or that they are simply losers.

But some consumers can be turned cynical about psychology. Here is a Harvard professor trying to sell them crap advice. Psychology sucks, it is crap.

Conflict of interest: Nothing to declare?

In an interview with The New York Times, Amy Cuddy said: “I don’t care if some people view this research as stupid,” she said. “I feel like it’s my duty to share it.”

Amy Cuddy may have been giving her power pose advice away for free in her Ted Talk, but she already had given it away at the $2,000 a ticket PopTech talk. The book contract for Presence: Bringing Your Boldest Self to Your Biggest Challenges was reportedly for around a million dollars.  And of course, like many academics who leave psychology for schools of management, Cuddy had a booking agency soliciting corporate talks and workshops. With the Ted talk, she could command $40,000-$100,000.

Does this discredit the science of power posing? Not necessarily, but readers should be informed and free to decide for themselves. Certainly, all this money in play might make Cuddy more likely to respond defensively to criticism of her work. If she repudiated this work the way that first author Dana Carey did, would there be a halt to her speaking gigs, a product recall, or refunds issued by Amazon for Presence?

I think it is fair to suggest that there is too much money in play for Cuddy to respond to academic debate.  Maybe things are outside that realm because of these stakes.

The replicationados attempt replications: Was it counterproductive?

 Faced with overwhelming evidence of the untrustworthiness of the psychological literature, some psychologists have organized replication initiatives and accumulated considerable resources for multisite replications. But replication initiatives are insufficient to salvage the untrustworthiness of many areas of psychology, particularly clinical and health psychology intervention studies, and may inadvertently dampen more direct attacks on bad science. Many of those who promote replication initiatives are silent when investigators refused to share data for studies with important clinical and public health implications. They are also silent when journals like Psychological Science fail to publish criticism of papers with blatantly faulty science.

Replication initiatives take time and results are often,but not always ultimately published outside of the journals where a flawed original work was published. But in important unintended consequence of them is they lend credibility to effect sizes that had no validity whatsoever when they occurred in the original papers. In debate attempting to resolve discrepancies between original studies and large scale replications, the original underpowered studies are often granted a more entrenched incumbent advantage.

It should be no surprise that in large-scale attempted  replication,  Ranehill , Dreber, Johannesson, Leiberg, Sul , and Weber failed to replicate the key, nontrivial findings of the original power pose study.

Consistent with the findings of Carney et  al., our results showed a significant effect of power posing on self-reported feelings of power. However, we found no significant effect of power posing on hormonal levels or in any of the three behavioral tasks.

It is also not surprising that Cuddy invoked her I-said-it-first-and-i-was-peer-reviewed incumbent advantage reasserting of her original claim, along with a review of 33 studies including the attempted replication:

The work of Ranehill et al. joins a body of research that includes 33 independent experiments published with a total of 2,521 research participants. Together, these results may help specify when nonverbal expansiveness will and will not cause embodied psychological changes.

Cuddy asserted methodological differences between their study and the attempted Ranehill replication, may have moderated the effects of posing. But no study has shown that putting participants into a power pose affects hormones.

Joe Simmons and Uri Simonsohn and performed a meta analysis of the studies nominated by Cuddy and ultimately published in Psychological Science. Their blog Data Colada succinctly summarized the results:

Consistent with the replication motivating this post, p-curve indicates that either power-posing overall has no effect, or the effect is too small for the existing samples to have meaningfully studied it. Note that there are perfectly benign explanations for this: e.g., labs that run studies that worked wrote them up, labs that run studies that didn’t, didn’t. [5]

While the simplest explanation is that all studied effects are zero, it may be that one or two of them are real (any more and we would see a right-skewed p-curve). However, at this point the evidence for the basic effect seems too fragile to search for moderators or to advocate for people to engage in power posing to better their lives.

Come on, guys, there was never a there there, don’t invent one, but keeping trying to explain it.

It is interesting that none of these three follow up articles in Psychological Science have abstracts, especially in contrast to the original power pose paper that effectively delivered its misleading message in the abstract.

Just as this blog post was being polished, a special issue of Comprehensive Results in Social Psychology (CRSP) on Power Poses was released.

  1. No preregistered tests showed positive effects of expansive poses on any behavioral or hormonal measures. This includes direct replications and extensions.
  2. Surprise: A Bayesian meta-analysis across the studies reveals a credible effect of expansive poses on felt power. (Note that this is described as a ‘manipulation check’ by Cuddy in 2015.) Whether this is anything beyond a demand characteristic and whether it has any positive downstream behavioral effects is unknown.

No, not a surprise, just an uninteresting artifact. But stay tuned for the next model of poser pose dropping the tainted name and focusing on “felt power.” Like rust, commercialization of bad psychological science never really sleeps, it only takes power naps.

Meantime, professional psychological organizations, with their flagship journals and publicity machines need to:

  • Lose their fascination with psychologists whose celebrity status depends on Ted talks and the marketing of dubious advice products grounded in pseudoscience.
  • Embrace and adhere to an expanded Pottery Barn rule that covers not only direct replications, but corrections to bad science that has been published.
  • Make the protection of  consumers from false and exaggerated claims a priority equivalent to the vulnerable reputations of academic psychologists in efforts to improve the trustworthiness of psychology.
  • Require detailed conflicts of interest statements for talks and articles.

All opinions expressed here are solely those of Coyne of the Realm and not necessarily of PLOS blogs, PLOS One or his other affiliations.

Disclosure:

I receive money for writing these blog posts, less than $200 per post. I am also marketing a series of e-books,  including Coyne of the Realm Takes a Skeptical Look at Mindfulness and Coyne of the Realm Takes a Skeptical Look at Positive Psychology.

Maybe I am just making a fuss to attract attention to these enterprises. Maybe I am just monetizing what I have been doing for years virtually for free. Regardless, be skeptical. But to get more information and get on a mailing list for my other blogging, go to coyneoftherealm.com and sign up.

 

 

 

 



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