Did power-posing guru Amy Cuddy deserve her public shaming?

Was Power-Posing Guru Amy Cuddy Shamed by Scientists Because She’s a Woman?

Was Power-Posing Guru Amy Cuddy Shamed by Scientists Because She’s a Woman?

The state of the universe.
Oct. 19 2017 3:24 PM

The Trials of Amy Cuddy

A feminist psychologist was dragged through the mud for her mistakes. Did she deserve it?

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Amy Cuddy speaks onstage at the New York Times New Work Summit on March 1, 2016, in Half Moon Bay, California.

Kimberly White/Getty Images for theNew York Times

The first big reveal in this week’s New York Times Magazine feature, “When the Revolution Came for Amy Cuddy,” is that the superstar of social psychology and inventor of the “power pose” has been reduced to hunching. She’s sitting in her Harvard office with one hand tucked beneath her leg, writes reporter Susan Dominus, like “someone in a conflicted emotional state, someone both wanting to tell her story and unsure about doing so.”

Daniel Engber Daniel Engber

Daniel Engber is a columnist for Slate

Cuddy rose to prominence on the basis of a 2010 study in which she and two colleagues claimed to show that if a person spends even two minutes in a “high-power pose,” with her arms outstretched, she will “embody power and instantly become more powerful.” (In practice, that meant they felt more powerful, had higher levels of testosterone and lower levels of cortisol, and took more risks in a gambling task.) In her enormously successful TED talk on this research—one that spawned a best-selling book—Cuddy described power posing as a “free, no-tech life hack” that “can significantly change the outcomes of [your] life.”

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As Cuddy made the rounds in the media, collecting public accolades for her game-changing science, a fight was brewing in her field. By the end of 2011, a movement had emerged among psychologists to re-examine prior work. Statistics-minded critics pointed out that standard ways of setting up experiments and analyzing the results had some major flaws, and that the research literature seemed all but guaranteed to be infected with a rash of false-positive conclusions. Cuddy’s work, like that of many other scientists, would fail to replicate in larger studies. It seemed that she and her co-authors had cajoled the data in the usual ways, by excluding certain information when it seemed useful or convenient—a process known as p-hacking.

Cuddy “emerged from this upheaval as a unique object of social psychology’s new, enthusiastic spirit of self-flagellation,” writes Dominus, “as if only in punishing one of its most public stars could it fully break from its past.” Indeed, her fellow academics attacked more than her research, Dominus says, “but also her career, her income, her ambition, even her intelligence, sometimes with evident malice.” In the end, she became the “poster girl” for problems in psychology, if not the hunching emblem of its human cost.

Dominus’ story should be read in its entirety, as a portrait of the replication crisis and the tensions it evokes. For all its extraordinary and empathetic detail, though, I think it leaves several vital questions unexplored. First and foremost: Why did Cuddy end up as the “poster girl” for suspect science, and how much did it matter that she was a woman?

The Times only gestures at the role of gender in the story: “The public nature of the attacks against Cuddy have reverberated among social psychologists, raising questions about the effects of harsh discourse on the field and particularly on women,” writes Dominus near the end of her account. She goes on to cite the claim of one social psychologist, Alison Ledgerwood, “that if scientists keep having hostile conversations on social media, women are more likely to be driven away from the field.”

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Yet there’s clearly a lot more to the gender subtext here, beyond the well-established, asymmetric risk of online bullying. In her narrative of Cuddy’s shaming, Dominus lays out a Mars-and-Venus set of characters. On one side are the women: Cuddy, a former ballerina, who made her way through grad school with a newborn baby; her mentor Susan Fiske, whom Cuddy has described as the “angel adviser” who believed in her and nurtured her career; and Cuddy’s colleague and co-author Dana Carney, with whom she devised the pioneering work on power poses. On the other side are men: Cuddy’s former grad school classmate, Joseph Simmons, a psychology-and-softball bro who joined with Uri Simonsohn and Leif Nelson to lead the charge for greater rigor in psychology, and who go after Cuddy’s research on their blog Data Colada; and Andrew Gelman, a Columbia University statistician, political scientist, and occasional Slate contributor who has written at length, repeatedly, about the flaws in Cuddy’s work (if not her character), and her unwillingness to acknowledge her mistakes.

Dominus doesn’t say these men are monsters—it’s clear they’re not—but she does take the skeptic side to task. At one point, she has Simmons reread an email he sent to Cuddy early on in their dispute, where he’d made it sound as though he didn’t have a major beef with the work on power posing. So why did he go on to ambush Cuddy with such a damning blog post, she asks? “He had a pained look on his face. … He read it over again, then sat back. ‘This may be a big misunderstanding about—that email is too polite.’ ” Simmons later adds: “I wish I’d had the presence of mind to pick up the phone and call Amy.” (Would the outcome of this story been any different if he’d done exactly that and talked to her by phone? It’s hard to say.)

As for Gelman, Dominus suggested he meet with Cuddy face to face so they could try to work things out. Gelman demurred, saying, “I don’t like interpersonal conflict.”

Dominus also portrays Cuddy as having been blindsided and betrayed by her female co-author. Last fall, Carney went public with a statement renouncing their work together. “I do not believe that ‘power pose’ effects are real,” it said. Dominus strongly implies that Carney was caving to a goad on Gelman’s blog. (He’d written: “When people screw up or cheat in their research, what do their collaborators say?”) More than that, she hints that Carney’s disavowal may have shown a tinge of Stockholm syndrome. “The letter had a strangely unscientific vehemence to it,” she writes, also suggesting that it was “so sweeping as to be vague, self-abnegating.”

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The gendered nature of this conflict has bubbled up in other settings, too. The same week that Carney changed her mind on power posing, Susan Fiske released a fierce attack on what she called “methodological terrorism” in her field, referencing what she called the “public shaming and blaming” of midcareer researchers by “online vigilantes” and “destructo-critics.” (She would later back off some of this rhetoric.) As I reported in Slate, Fiske saw herself as standing up for a highly vulnerable group of academics—including Cuddy, her friend and former student—whom she likened to “rape victims,” in the sense that one couldn’t expect them to come forward with their own stories of abuse at the hands of the reformers.

A few weeks after Fiske’s remarks came out, Slate published a rebuttal of Cuddy’s work from behavioral endocrinologist Carole Hooven, who said power poses might be worse than useless; they might be hurting women. “Power posing theory, in suggesting that we mimic high testosterone poses, glorifies the alpha male,” she wrote.

But if Cuddy ended up the poster girl for the replication crisis, it took a bit of time for this framing to develop. Long before any “vigilantes” made a public stink about Cuddy’s power-pose research, the replication crisis had a string of poster boys—very senior, tenured academics whose work had been dredged up and re-examined. First came Daryl Bem, who set off a round of ridicule and recrimination when his “proof” of ESP landed in a major journal around the time Cuddy published her research. Then it was John Bargh, who lashed out in 2012 when one of his most famous studies failed to replicate, setting off another early replication brouhaha.

These men have been pilloried online, but compared with Cuddy, they had nothing much to lose. Both Bem and Bargh were on the brink of retirement when aspects of their work were cast in doubt. Other male scientists who’ve been attacked by critics were (and are) still entrenched in stable jobs with ample funding and a host of allies. As a midcareer academic who didn’t yet have tenure, Cuddy lacked any of this professional armor. Still, the TED talk had turned her into a self-help celebrity, with a huge book deal and an army of adherents. She may not have risen to the highest reaches of academia, but she was soaring in the media—and that meant that going after her could still be understood as punching up.

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The interplay of gender and authority also played out on another level. Cuddy wasn’t just a woman who’d gained a certain kind of power—she’d made the empowerment of women and minorities the explicit goal of her research. Her original power-posing paper noted that its findings would be important for people of “low hierarchical rank” or who belong to “a low-power social group.” These concepts fit in with what she’s described as her long-term interest in the science of sexism and racism, and how one might “empower marginalized individuals and groups.”

Cuddy never wavered from this mission. In interviews, as in her TED talk, she described the work on power pose as having started when she noticed the “gender grade gap” among her students at Harvard Business School. Half the students’ grades came from participation, she says, and this put the women in her classes at a major disadvantage. Even from their body language, she could tell they were holding back. (She says she also noticed similar body language among nonwhite men.) The power pose was meant to give them greater confidence, so the gender gap would go away. It could also help empower women in the workplace, she would argue, and even little girls. “How do we prevent our daughters from collapsing?” she said during a recent interview with Alan Alda. “How do we teach our daughters to take up their fair share of space, to share their ideas and be strong and unapologetic about it?”

Cuddy’s work tapped into a broader and de facto social mission in her field, one shared by other researchers: to use the science of psychology to counter inequality and fight for social justice. In the early 1990s, psychologist Claude Steele noticed that the black students at his university were falling behind in their performance. Like Cuddy, he ran a set of lab experiments to show how the grade gap might be made to go away. When he told the students that a given test was not supposed to be a measure of their intelligence, he found a miraculous result: All the students did about the same on the exam (when he controlled for prior SAT scores). Hearing a single phrase had freed the black students from a debilitating and distracting insecurity, Steele argued, and it seemed like racial inequalities in education might have an easy fix.

That may sound Pollyanna-ish in retrospect, but Steele’s research was treated as a panacea by his peers. (“Have you told anyone about this work?” one asked him when he began to share the data, according to a New York Times account from 1995. “The ramifications are enormous.”) Several decades’ worth of follow-up ensued, in an effort that would span hundreds of experiments. His work on race could be applied to gender, too: Studies showed that girls could boost their scores in math and science if the tests were redesigned to make them feel less threatened.

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Now Cuddy had her own fix for a fundamental social problem. She’d identified a source of inequality, and she’d ginned up a way to make it go away. “This is a really tiny tweak,” she told an interviewer in 2012. “What are the other tiny tweaks that you can make that can change and improve your life, and other people’s lives?”

But if there’s one thing we’ve learned from the replication crisis, it’s that many of these tiny tweaks aren’t quite so potent as we’ve been led to believe. It isn’t true that drinking a glass of lemonade will replenish your reserve of self-control. It’s not the case that placing a pen between your teeth will make you happy.* A picture of a pair of eyes won’t make you act more honestly. And so on.

These particular reversals—on the effects of lemonade and pens and pictures of a pair of eyes—caused some shockwaves in psychology. For the rest of us, though, the stakes were rather low. Perhaps some science had been overturned, but it all seemed academic.

That’s what makes Cuddy’s work—and the squabbles over its validity—especially contentious. She wasn't just saying that a power pose will pump you full of testosterone and make you feel terrific; she was telling us that a power pose would empower women and minorities. Her work, she said, was all “about building ladders up and taking walls down.”

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This high-mindedness of purpose would put her critics in an tricky spot: Their attacks on what now appears to be a shoddy piece of research would end up standing in for attacks on what Cuddy had come to represent—a successful woman who was helping other women find their own success. The same dynamic may soon play out with the line of research started by Claude Steele: His big idea has now been challenged by a host of replication failures. How ugly will the replication crisis get if a classic means of counteracting systemic racism is eventually debunked?

Yet this is also where the people Fiske unfairly called “destructo-critics” would seem to be most vital. They’re the ones who’ve been double-checking all the most important social-psych research. Does standing up like Wonder Woman really lead to greater gender equity? If so, then Cuddy’s work would be heroic. But good ideas should be reconfirmed before we say that they’re worth spreading. Bad ideas, however well-intentioned, should be outed and dismissed. If there’s a human cost to this critique, as work gets overturned and careers are redirected, shouldn’t we accept it for the greater good?

Dominus ends her piece with Cuddy having given up on getting tenure. She’s decided to write a book about bullying and people who have “suffered fates worse than her own and bounced back.” There’s still a tragic tone to the whole affair: Cuddy was playing by the rules of social psychology as they’d been established before the replication crisis hit, writes Dominus, yet she was singled out for special censure. Was that because Cuddy is a woman who had found a kind of public power? Perhaps, but I think her shaming may have been just as much a side effect of how she’d sold her big idea.

“I don’t care if some people view this research as stupid,” she told the New York Times several years ago. “I feel like it’s my duty to share it.” She stood on a stage, with her hands on her hips and chest puffed out, and claimed she’d found a way to help disadvantaged women everywhere. “I don’t have ego involved in this,” she said. “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.” She kept on saying this for years, even when the evidence had shifted. In the end, someone had to share the fact that she was wrong.

This may have been a tragedy—a “public humiliation,” as one psychologist tells Dominus, of unprecedented “mockery and meanness on Facebook, Twitter, in blog posts.” But we shouldn’t focus exclusively on that set of harms. If Cuddy chooses to accept the reassessment of her work, she’ll be facing something more disturbing and profound: a loss of faith in her ideas.

The pain caused by the replication crisis is personal for Amy Cuddy. It’s personal for lots of others, too—scientists you’ve never heard of, whose work has never been called out, but whose hearts were broken when their passions ran aground on the rocks of faulty methodology. There’s a lot of pain to go around, and lots of healing to be done.

*Correction, Oct. 23, 2017: This piece originally misstated the methodology of a classic psychology study. The subjects of that study held pens between their teeth, not their lips. (Return.)

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