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Fake It and Make It: Important Life Lesson Despite Questionable Science?

Originally published in proFmagazine, April 4, 2017.

If faking it until you make it is what gets you past your self-doubt and allows you to jump at opportunities that come your way, then I don’t see how it can hurt.

It’s happened to all of us – that moment when we have struggled to find our confidence, have doubted our abilities, have even foregone an opportunity because we weren’t 100% certain that we were qualified or even worthy. These experiences explain why Amy Cuddy’s research, in collaboration with Andy Yap and Dana Carney, about the effects of “power posing” was so appealing – appealing enough to garner more than 40 million views for Cuddy’s 2012 TEDGlobal talk entitled Your Body Language Shapes Who You Are.

In her TED presentation, and in her 2015 book Presence: Bringing Your Boldest Self to Your Biggest Challenges, Cuddy tells us how research shows that holding a “posture of confidence” for two minutes actually changes our body chemistry – increasing power-oriented hormones such as testosterone and decreasing stress-related hormones such as cortisol. This physiological response to body language is, therefore, touted as a free and easy way to boost our confidence and help us get ahead. In fact, Cuddy concludes in the talk that “our bodies change our minds, our minds change our behavior, and our behavior changes our outcomes.” Ultimately, Cuddy argues that “when you pretend to be powerful you are more likely to feel powerful.” These “tiny tweaks,” she says, can lead to “big changes.” This issue of “pretending,” however, is what led some to suggest that the prescription of power posing actually feels “fake.” But Cuddy, a professor of Social Psychology at Harvard, responds by offering a personal anecdote about her own struggles with doubt, and how she literally “faked it” until she “became it.” After experiencing a serious car accident at the age of 19, she was gravely injured and told she would not be able to finish college or regain the cognitive function that she had once possessed. For someone who had always identified with being gifted intellectually, this was a huge blow. Despite the prognosis, however, Cuddy worked hard to graduate from college and go on to graduate school at Princeton University. While studying at Princeton, however, she felt out of her league. She confessed to her advisor, the well-known social psychologist Susan Fiske, that she felt like a fraud. But Fiske wouldn’t have it. She insisted that Cuddy get into the classroom and “fake it until you make it.” And Cuddy admits, rather emotionally, that she did just that. This experience, and the experience of others (typically women) that she has witnessed, convinced her that you can certainly “fake it until you make it.” She argues that you can fake it enough “to where you actually become it.” The response to Cuddy’s collaborative research was phenomenal, with multiple journals, blogs, media outlets and others touting the effects of power posing and various other practices that help you fake it until you make it. Despite the accolades and praise, however, some began to question the science behind Cuddy’s famous power posing study. A group of scientists from three countries attempted to replicate the physiological outcome of holding a confident pose. Their results, based on a much larger sample size than the Cuddy, Yap and Carney study, showed that such body language did not alter levels of testosterone and cortisol. The Ranehill study, as it came to be known based on the name of the study’s lead author, was published in the journal Psychological Science and resulted in an onslaught of questions and criticism about power posing. In fact, Dana Carney, one of Cuddy’s coauthors for the body language study, has recently stated that based on the Ranehill research and other studies she no longer believes in the power of power posing. Cuddy responded to the criticism of her work in an extensive interview with David Biello for TED in February 2017, in which she recognizes the very natural scientific process that leads to the questioning of previous studies. When asked about her current views on power posing, Cuddy says:

I now refer to this general phenomenon as the “postural feedback effect,” but if I am choosing just one effect – one outcome – the key finding is simple: adopting expansive postures causes people to feel more powerful. In the years since my coauthors and I published our 2010 paper, this effect has been replicated in at least nine published studies and in at least four unpublished studies from nine different labs. What’s absolutely clear from the studies is that adopting expansive poses increases people’s feelings of power and confidence. And feeling powerful is a critical psychological variable.

So, is it possible to fake it until you make it? Cuddy seems to think so. But we must also be aware of other related issues and potential solutions, such as the negative effects of feeling like an “imposter” in life and at work (this is especially the case for women, a problem articulated as far back as 1978) or the positive effects of presenting the authentic you, even when, asBrené Brown argues in her famous TED talk, it makes you vulnerable. There is definitely enough debate on the topic. And perhaps it all boils down to what works for each individual. But one thing may be certain – if faking it until you make it is what gets you past your self doubt and allows you to jump at opportunities that come your way, then I don’t see how it can hurt.


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