Cialdini Asks: Amy Cuddy

Cialdini Asks is a series of video interviews in which I ask experts in behavioral science about the journey that spurred their literary and academic work: how they wrote about it for a larger and more popular audience, the aspects of their content, and the motivations behind their work.

Today, I interview Amy Cuddy, bestselling author of Presence: Bringing Your Boldest Self to Your Biggest Challenges, known around the world for her 2012 TED Talk, which is the second-most viewed talk in TED’s history. A Harvard Business School professor and social psychologist, Cuddy studies how nonverbal behavior and snap judgments influence people. Her research has been published in top academic journals and covered by NPR, the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, The Economist, Wired, Fast Company, and more. Cuddy has been named a Game Changer by Time, a Rising Star by the Association for Psychological Science, one of 50 Women Who Are Changing the World by Business Insider, and a Young Global Leader by the World Economic Forum.

It was a pleasure speaking with Amy for the Cialdini Asks Interview Series.


Read the transcript of this interview below.

Robert Cialdini:

Hello, I’m Bob Cialdini, a Behavioral Scientist, and author of the book, Influence, as well as the new book, Pre-Suasion. I’d like to tell you about a series of video interviews I’ve conducted with individuals who I admire, and who have written about behavioral science, for the academic community, but as well for the larger community. Individuals such as Dan Ariely, Adam Grant, Amy Cuddy, and Richard Thaler.

In this series of interviews called, Cialdini Asks, I try to get beneath the surface and behind the scenes. Inquiring into the motivations that spurred the work of these individuals, and their decisions to write about it for a popular audience. I also ask them about aspects of their work that exceeded their expectations in terms of impact, as well as those aspects of their work they felt have been most under-appreciated. I even ask them to tell us a funny story, or a revealing one, that nobody knows about them and their work.

I know that in the process, I have been surprised, fascinated, and informed by their answers. I hope that the same will be true for you. So, I do hope that you will look out for, and tune in, to the Cialdini Asks video series, as we make it available online over the next several weeks. Thanks.

Hi Amy.

Amy Cuddy:

Hi, thank you for having me.

Robert Cialdini:

Well I’m looking forward to the opportunity to chat a little bit. You know I’m a big fan of your research, but I was especially taken with your book, Presence. Can you tell us about the series of events that led up to your decision to write that book. That is, what made you decide to turn the research covered there, into something directed not just to the academic community, but to the larger community?

Amy Cuddy:

Yeah. It’s funny, I always thought that if I wrote a book it would be … First of all, I’d have to wait for the book to exist in my head before I would sign any kind of contract to write it. I would not say, “This is an interesting idea, I’m going to explore it.” I had to really feel ready to write it. And that is what happened with Presence. But it was a kind of unusual path for an academic, because my TED Talk which I gave in 2012, became very popular before I had a book, and while I was a very junior faculty member.

So I really wasn’t ready. Of course I had a lot of people saying, “Oh, write a book on Power Posing.” And I thought I don’t want to write a book just on Power Posing. So what happened was I allowed the people who had watched the talk, and who had reached out to me, either over email, or old hand-written letters which are so beautiful to get … or people that I’d meet at airports, or on the street or shops, it’s amazing, from all over the world. They, in an unexpected way, guided me to this topic of Presence.

What I found is that these, literally tens of thousands of people, didn’t write and say, “Oh, I Power Posed, and I felt my hormones change.” They talked about challenges that they had faced in their lives. I’m talking about a 13-year-old girl in Mainland China who was working up the courage to speak up in class, or one who wanted to learn English. Or an elderly man in Florida, a retired Word War II veteran who said he had lost his sense of pride, and he needed to gather the courage every time he went to talk to his doctor, in order to be treated like a human, and not be dehumanized. But the challenges seemed very different, but there was a thread through them. It was that people felt that the stakes were high in these challenges. They really cared about it, and the outcome mattered to them. And they also felt this profound sense of being socially judged. The thing that helped them get there was to feel personally powerful. Not to feel power over others, but to feel the power to do things. And something about the talk had helped them move in that direction. But they were doing it in all different ways.

What would happen in those moments when they felt powerful, is that they felt they could actually connect with the person who they had seen as threatening. The person that they had seen as threatening no longer became threatening. They became a possible ally, or a peer. And they were able to leave those challenges feeling a sense of satisfaction instead of regret. That became the book I wanted to write. Not just a book about body language, but a book about how we face these daily small challenges that we face whether we have very little formal power, or a lot of formal power. I just felt so much connection with people as a result of giving the TED Talk. I realized that that was my place, in a way. I really wanted to connect more outside of academia.

I grew up in a small, rural town in Pennsylvania. In a place where very few people went to college. So I never felt fancy. I never have felt like I belonged in these places like Princeton and Harvard. I want to talk to people outside those places.

Robert Cialdini:

Well, it’s interesting that those accounts that you describe, made you feel ready to write the book. But it seems to me, they also make people ready to read it by experiencing those accounts. People outside of the academic community want to know about that kind of connection. There’s meaning there besides whether the data are significant beyond .05. There was something there about that set of accounts that gave you the ability to know what you were doing, and then to do it in a way that was truly able to touch people.

Amy Cuddy:

Thank you.

Robert Cialdini:

Which I accounts for a lot of the success of that book.

Amy Cuddy:

Thank you. I do think people see themselves in these stories, and they feel less alone. One of the things I hear most often from people who write to me, is that they didn’t realize other people felt like imposters. And just learning … For me, and you know how huge a fan I am of your work, and everything related back to it in a way. So I always think it’s social proof. Right? For people to just learn that others feel like an imposter, in a way allows them to feel less frightened by the idea that they feel like an imposter. So I think that that’s part of the ability to connect is to share vulnerabilities. Thank you.

Robert Cialdini:

Well let’s go on to the next questions that’s proven to me … Someone once asked me this question, and I thought it was revealing when I reflected back on the answer to it, for myself. But here’s the question to you. Of all the work you’ve done, what would you say has been most underappreciated, and why do you think that is?

Amy Cuddy:

That’s interesting. Yeah, I’ve been thinking about this. You know, I can think of it on paper, but also a larger phenomenon. I think … You know, I’m actually by training a stereotype and prejudice researcher. Most of my research is on how we mis-perceive other people. The biases that we have in our perceptions of others. And so, although I do think that work is appreciated in the social psychology community, I think people are less aware of it outside. That’s just sort of a function of having an idea that became really popular.

One of the papers on stereotyping that I have been working on for years, and thought would be more impactful than it was, is a paper on how culture shapes the content of gender stereotypes. That paper, from beginning of data collection to publication, took 10 years. It was a cross-cultural paper. We collected data in Korea and the US. We ended up running many many studies, and then doing a huge re-analysis of 27 countries … data from 27 countries. The takeaway is that people believe the stereotype that women are more interdependent and collectivistic. They think that that is a universal stereotype. That men are everywhere seen as more independent. And women as more interdependent. That’s not the case. It turns out where interdependence is valued, like East Asian cultures, men are seen as more interdependent, and women as less interdependent.

That was such a big project, I thought it was a very big theoretical contribution to understanding gender stereotypes and how culture interacts with them. I think in the wake of the Power Posing work, it just went under the radar. But I’m still very interested in that idea, and understanding how as cultures change, gender stereotypes will change as well.

Robert Cialdini:

Fascinating. As I say, I’m a big fan of your work. And as you say, that particular study is not one I had on my radar screen. But I see now that you’ve mentioned it, how insightful that conclusion is for understanding how the stereotype process works. So I’m glad we had the chance to bring some prominence to it.

Amy Cuddy:

Me too, thank you.

Robert Cialdini:

So let’s ask the flip side of that question. Of all your work, what has surprised you most, in terms of its big impact. That is, beyond your expectation?

Amy Cuddy:

Yeah. It has to be the Power Posing idea. There are two sides of that coin. On the one hand, I love the simplicity of … I love the idea of giving people self nudges, ways to improve their own lives. As opposed … I like the nudge idea, of changing people’s behavior in a healthier way. Sort of, one person changing another person’s behavior. But there’s something a little paternalistic about it. So I prefer the idea of giving people evidence-based tools to change their own lives. Right? That they can apply when they need them.

I certainly, when I gave that talk, had no idea. You don’t even know if your talk will be posted. So you certainly have no idea if 500,000 people will watch it. And that seems terrifying. And certainly not 38 million. That just went way beyond my wildest expectations.

The unfortunate thing about it is that when you give a talk like that, you’re stuck … you’re suspended in time. I gave a talk on what we knew in 2012, and now we know a lot more. I also understand the phenomenon to be much broader than ‘stand like Wonder Woman for two minutes.’ One thing is that the hormones findings are really fragile. We’ve seen … There are three studies that show them, and two that don’t … show the effects on hormones. I didn’t realize how sticky the hormones findings would be for people. People really find that interesting. To me, the fact that it changes the way you feel, is more important.

If hormones are the mechanism, okay, maybe that’s interesting, but not the most important piece. But the other is that it’s a much bigger idea. The idea is that how you carry yourself, you choose to carry yourself with grace and poise and pride, than you carry out your interactions with grace and poise and pride. It’s not just about standing with your hands on your hips for two minutes. It’s about standing up straight … There’s a great Maya Angelou quote, “Stand up straight, and realize who you are. That you tower over your circumstances.” To me, that captures it. So I wish I had been able to communicate that broader idea. I am able to do that now. But the talk that people watch from four and a half years ago will always be limited.

Robert Cialdini:

Here’s another question that I think your followers would love to know. In your experience, as either a researcher or as a book author, is there a revealing or humorous story you can tell us that only a few people know?

Amy Cuddy:

Yes. I was getting my hair cut, I was going to be doing this interview for a television show. I was talking about … I was a little bit nervous about this interview. It was something I cared about quite a bit, and I was telling the hair stylist about it and she said, “Oh, well you have to … There’s a way that you can get ready to do this.” And she’s like, “I’m also a yoga teacher, so I know about this stuff.” And she said, “OK, I watched this talk, and if you’re nervous about something like this, you gotta put your hands on your hips, and stand there for two minutes. We all have these experiences, so don’t feel bad.” And I said, “I know. I’m her.” And she goes, “I know, aren’t we all?” So she thought I was saying “I am the person who needs this.” But I was trying to say, “No, that’s my talk.” And then she goes, “Oh my God. Oh, shoot. You are that person, literally,” and I said, “Yeah.” But I thought it was great. I was like, thank you, it is good advice. Thank you for reminding me of my own advice.

Robert Cialdini:

As you know I’ve written a book Pre-suasion. You actually were kind enough to offer an endorsement of it. It explores what communicators can do before delivering a message to increase its acceptance. For my final question, can you describe a situation where, as a communicator … now it could be you, or it could be somebody else … when that communicator said or did something first, that led to the success of an immediately subsequent appeal?

Amy Cuddy:

I have to tell this story about someone else who has really influenced me, and how he approaches things. What I love … You know again, I love your work. And this idea is so consistent with my idea that we build trust before we deliver information. That you have to build trust as a conduit of influence, and if you don’t do that, it’s nearly impossible to influence anyone. I mean, if they don’t think that you understand them, why would they listen to you? Why would they take your prescription?

The greatest example that I have come across is from a Baptist minister named Jeffrey Brown, who was part of a movement called the Boston Miracle in the early ’90s. Where gang violence had escalated beyond where it had ever been. There were more than a hundred youth deaths in one year, and no one knew what to do. Everyone kept bringing in experts. People had good intentions, they wanted to change things. But they would bring in experts, they would have lock-down, they’d have after school programs, they tried community policing … all of these things didn’t work. Finally these three young black Baptist ministers, who had been going to these meetings to talk about what to do, realized that what they needed to do was to listen to the young people. To the gang members themselves.

This is a longer-term process, but there are also many short-term examples of how this worked. What Jeffrey and these two other young ministers did, is they would walk the streets from 10 pm to 2 am every Saturday night. And they would just sit and listen. They would listen. They had no agenda. So the action, was to listen, rather than to talk. And by listening, it immediately opened up these young people to them. They trusted them. So when they then requested information … Jeffrey and these two other young men, the kids were much more likely to offer the information, to tell them how they felt. So it’s listening first. Listening as an action.

I tell my students all the time, listen first. You don’t have to take the floor right away. It’s okay. It’s not going anywhere. By just simply listening you are immediately opening people up to you. Right? You’re also collecting information. I have so many examples, for me it would be listening as the action immediately before the request. Is incredibly powerful.

Robert Cialdini:

I think what you said is really insightful. That while we may think that the primary benefit of listening … genuinely listening … is to collect the requisite information to allow us to move forward with some kind of a plan. It’s something more primitive than that.

Amy Cuddy:

I absolutely agree.

Robert Cialdini:

It’s the willingness to be open. To accepting the information that the other individual is providing that’s so beneficial to what’s next.

Amy Cuddy:

I agree. The outcome of this approach, of listening to these young people, to these gang members, was that gang violence dropped dramatically in Boston. Many economists and sociologist have studied this thinking, “It can’t be.” But actually, it is. That’s what happened. It was that approach of listening first that helped them solve the problem.

Robert Cialdini:

Great example.

Amy Cuddy:

Thank you so much, bye.

Robert Cialdini:

So long for now.


Presence: Bringing Your Boldest Self to Your Biggest Challenges

Brilliantly researched, impassioned, and accessible, Presence is filled with stories of individuals who learned how to flourish during the stressful moments that once terrified them. Every reader will learn how to approach their biggest challenges with confidence instead of dread, and to leave them with satisfaction instead of regret.

Learn More

Pre-Suasion: A Revolutionary Way to Influence and Persuade

The author of the legendary bestseller Influence, social psychologist Robert Cialdini shines a light on effective persuasion and reveals that the secret doesn’t lie in the message itself, but in the key moment before that message is delivered.

Learn More


Originally published on Influence at Work