It’s what’s on the outside that counts

Like the great debates of human history, the secret to confidence and success is argued as though divided into two mutually exclusive camps. “Clothing makes the (wo)man!” says one side. “Look good on the outside and the inside all falls into place.” The other side interjects: “Forget the outside. Strength comes from within; get yourself sorted and people will react accordingly.”

So what do we do? Buy a wardrobe? Self-study our own psychological profile? “Invest” in plastic surgeries? Zen meditation?

Traditionally, many people (scientists included) tend to focus on the latter camp, believing that it’s strictly their internal make-up — be it personality, genes, psychology or whatever you’d like to call it — that really dictates the path of their lives. The beautiful people are successful, we assume, simply because it’s easier to fix the inside when the universe is saying how great you are on the outside. But even if we’re shaped right, covered in cosmetics and injected so full of synthetics that we might be considered cyborg, we can’t be the boss if we’re too nervous to lead, and we can’t be brave if we’re too scared to act, right?

Science says we’re categorically wrong. Focusing strictly on the realm of the inside will leave you waiting for real confidence to just “happen,” and spending all of your hard-earned bucks on your looks won’t fix the person on the inside. Early this year, a study from the Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University made some interesting headway looking at an aspect of your life that is both external and, in a sense, internal — your posture.

The study looked at how people acted in the setting of a job interview, contrasting hierarchical position/job title against the interviewee’s posture. It was found almost universally that having an open and expansive “powerful” posture — in this case, crossing your legs at the ankle, putting one hand on the armrest and putting the other arm across the back of the couch — led to more confident and powerful thoughts, acts and behaviours on the part of the experimental subjects. Likewise, hidden, closed, “weak” postures, such as slouching and sitting on one’s hands, led to reduced action and inactive behaviour. While job title and rank had an effect on the subjects’ perceived sense of power, it had virtually no effect on behaviour. Contrarily, the subjects who were forced to take dominant poses were outwardly more confident and active in their responses without even realizing it.
To take matters even further, a different study conducted later in the year has found that weak postures actually increase one’s sensitivity to pain, both physically and emotionally; adopting an expansive posture actually increased the subjects’ pain threshold and allowed them to altogether endure discomfort for a significantly longer period of time.

At first it may appear counter-intuitive and feel rather awkward to open your body language when you’re feeling vulnerable, but it seems that is exactly what scientists would have you do. Despite seeming like the natural and instinctual thing to do, curling yourself up into a tiny little ball when under duress, whether it’s subjecting yourself to a job interview or going to the doctor for uncomfortable tests, not only reduces your active participation and control in the events that follow, but actually increases your sense of vulnerability and physical pain sensitivity. Your brain subconsciously goes into a sort of protection mode, and generally speaking, the most easily practicable form of protection is to shut down, shut up and focus on the pain so you know exactly when to run away.
And isn’t it clearly evidenced in daily life? The angry-types flare their arms (and even their nostrils) outward mid-yell. Tai chi and yoga might not actually call upon mystical energies to heal the body and soul, but they do force us to expand outward and occupy more space than we’re typically accustomed to. Thousands of years of military drill have focused on a tall, straight back.

It’s a very easily testable hypothesis, too: the next time you’re in a socially, or physically, awkward situation, take those few extra seconds to go from top to bottom and establish yourself in the room. Sit or stand tall, straighten your spine and, for the love of decency, don’t let yourself slouch. Lift your head up and look straight. Pull your shoulders down and back; don’t let yourself tense. Stick out your chest. Uncross those arms and find a place for them not only at your side, but outward from your body. Widen your stance with your legs. Tell yourself, “This is my space and I am in control.” And most importantly, don’t let yourself give in to your natural desire to pull inward and slip into protection mode, most especially if you make an uncomfortable boo-boo. You might end up surprised, not just with how people react to you, but how you conduct yourself outwardly.

We’ve all heard about the importance of inner serenity before, but as evidenced in the wisdoms of science, like those great debates of human history I mentioned earlier, life is not about subscribing strictly to one camp or another; the best solutions come about when you strike an appropriate balance between extremes, because both sides of an issue always have valuable contributions to make. You can meditate yourself blue in the face, but it’s not going to change the world. Likewise, maniacally chopping yourself up and swapping out body parts for the Barbie brand won’t change you one lick on the inside either.

But taking a few seconds for self-inspection and correction, both on the inside and out, just might in the end make you a better person and, ultimately, the world a better place.

Gerald wrote this with a straighter back.

Comments are closed.