Presence: Real or Imagined?

Mary, Mary quite contrary showed up today. She’s of a “certain age” and has a streak of magenta in her dark hair. We have nicknamed her that because she seems to take a contrarian view to everything we suggest. Inwardly, I sighed. Mary Mary delights in complaining about my suggestions. It felt like anything I said was wrong.

“You told me to read the book Presence: Bringing Your Boldest Self to Your Biggest Challenges by Amy Cuddy. You know, the one where you change your posture to gain a sense of power. Now scientists are saying it’s bunk.” Cuddy’s collaborator, Dana Carney, had said in a statement that follow-up research didn’t replicate hormonal or behavioral effects Cuddy had claimed.

I hadn’t recommended the title, except to tell her others had told me that changes in posture boosted their self-confidence as shown by certain hormone levels. And, given numerous books on body language, there seemed to be some basis for Cuddy’s findings. Regardless of how you’re feeling, how others perceive you despite your internal state has repercussions for public speakers and those in authority. Mary told me she wanted to feel more self-confident. Have a better attitude. With minimal effort, of course.

A substantial part of the book contains the scientific basis for Cuddy’s research. Unfortunately, Dana Carney, one of Cuddy’s fellow researchers, repudiated the findings. It also appears that Cuddy fell victim to the academic pressure to “publish or perish.” Consequently, academia and the public pilloried her.

But, others have had their findings discredited, but there has been little or no mention in the press. More senior academics like Daryl Bem, who published “proof” of ESP slipped under the radar, as did John Bargh, who described subjects “primed” for negative stereotypes about the elderly worked more slowly. Neither set of findings could be replicated. Yet I read about them in academic textbooks and articles during grad school. Why was Cuddy vilified?

When I was growing up, my parents told me to walk tall and move with confidence, even if I didn’t feel it. Did it work? I don’t know, but for those like Mary, the placebo effect from Cuddy’s findings helped her feel better about herself. More importantly, she didn’t have to spend large sums of money, nor did the postural shifts appear to cause any harm.

If posture doesn’t improve self-confidence, what does? Martin Seligman, former president of the American Psychological Association, was the founder of the positive psychology movement. Instead of focusing upon what was wrong with people, he began to study what was “right” instead. Learned Optimism: How to Change Your Mind and Your Life which came out more than ten years ago, found that people who consciously try to look for the best in a situation fare better in the long run. For example, upon receiving a cancer diagnosis avoid thinking you’ll be dead in six months.

Instead, tell yourself that while this is serious, there are resources, you will heal from this, etc. It’s a pragmatic, upbeat approach that honors the severity of the problem while at the same time offering hope. The process is backed up by years of research.

How do you ensure self-help information is legitimate?

Do self-help books help or harm?

Have you ever used self-help techniques instead of seeking professional help?

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