Animal experiments on whether pose and expression control mood

Amy Cuddy promoted power poses which she claimed boosted confidence and success. Replication of her results failed (the effects were not found in other psychology studies), then succeeded again, so the debate continues. Similarly, adopting a smiling expression makes people happier. Measuring the psychological effects of posture and expression is complicated in humans. For example, due to experimenter demand effects. Animals are simpler and cheaper to experiment with, but I did not find any animal experiments on power poses on Google Scholar on 28.03.2021.

The idea of the experiment is to move the animal into a confident or scared pose and measure the resulting behaviour, stress hormones, dominance hormones, maybe scan the brain. Potentially mood-affecting poses differ between animals, but are well-known for common pets. Lifting a dog’s tail up its back is a confident pose. Moving the tail side to side or putting the chest close to the ground and butt up in a “play-with-me bow” is happy, excited. Putting the dog’s tail between the legs is scared. Moving the dog’s gums back to bare its teeth is angry. Arching a cat’s back is angry. Curling the cat up and half-closing its eyes is contented.

The main problem is that the animal may resist being moved into these poses or get stressed by the unfamiliar treatment. A period of habituation training is needed, but if the pose has an effect, then part of this effect realises during the habituation. In this case, the measured effect size is attenuated, i.e. the pre- and post-treatment mood and behaviour look similar.

A similar experiment in people is to have a person or a robot move the limbs of the participants of the experiment into power poses instead of asking them to assume the pose. The excuse or distraction from the true purpose of the experiment may be light physical exercise, physical therapy or massage. This includes a facial massage, which may stretch the face into a smile or compress into a frown. The usual questionnaires and measurements may be administered after moving the body or face into these poses or expressions.

5 thoughts on “Animal experiments on whether pose and expression control mood

  1. Uku Vainik

    Great to see you thinking about psychology! I think you have more faith in these studies than I do 😉

    In my opinion, the power pose is a landmarks example of people pushing their agenda too aggressively. My impression seems to be that, yes, people may feel more powerful, but it does not seem to translate into other people perceiving them as more powerful. The latter is the key in my opinion. If posing has no effect on others, why bother with it.

    Another thing seems to be that the control paradigm seems to be driving the effect

    I would not have much faith in the pencil-in-the-mouth paradigm, too

    I also think that whenever you can do experiments in humans, they should be done in humans. The translation from animals to humans is a key issue. It does not seem to work well for pharma, and social behaviour is more difficult. To mock those difficulties, there is a fun twitter handle:

    1. sanhei Post author

      The extent of my faith is shown by my suggestion that these experiments need to be checked 😉 For example, on animals. Thank you for pointing out that in psychology, animal research does not translate well into humans. The signal from the checking I suggested is then weak. Depends on the cost of the checking whether it is worth doing. Even a weak signal is worth getting if it is cheap enough – many signals from different species may provide some useful info.

    1. sanhei Post author

      Sounds reasonable that a hot topic fails to replicate more often than a less hot topic, because the initial study may have been published for its hotness, not correctness. Subsequent non-pre-registered studies on a hot topic likely suffer a larger publication bias, so confirm the initial study. Pre-registered research should in theory not suffer publication bias, in which case it is more likely to refute an initial hot-topic study (which is more likely incorrect) than a non-hot study.


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