Wearing a cape is not essential. Just take a slow deep breath, puff out your chest, stand tall and strong and you too can be Superman. Or that’s what Sajid Javid must have been told to do by the psychologists when posing for his latest photoshoot which have the new Home Secretary standing legs akimbo, shoulders puffed out and arms straight down the legs.
It’s the only explanation for Javid’s so-called ‘power pose’ which has had Twitter in stitches, with some commenting that he looked more like Blackadder’s Prince George.
Javid is not the only Tory minister to be caught with his legs wide open in the Superman stance – George Osborne was first spotted striking a similar pose at the Conservative Party conference three years ago. Theresa May has tried it out, and so too have both David Cameron and Michael Gove.
Javid may have raised some laughs but psychologist Ian Robertson, chair of psychology at Trinity College Dublin, says the chest puffing gives inner power. Speaking from the US today, Robertson tells me that Javid needed to boost his confidence in the face of such a daunting job: “The evidence is clear that if you fake a confident, wide, upright posture, you will feel somewhat more confident and in charge.”
Indeed, Robertson, who is founder of the university’s Institute of neuroscience and author of The Stress Test: How Pressure Can Make You Stronger and Sharper, says channelling stress into a positive energy can radically improve performance and creativity, making people brighter and quicker.
He has a four-point plan for turning stress to one’s advantage: You start with step one, telling yourself you are excited rather than stressed. Step two is to breathe in slowly through the nose for five seconds, and then exhale for six.
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Then comes the Superhero bit – puff out your chest, and pull yourself up tall. This is followed by the final tip, squeezing your right hand shut for 45 seconds, open it for 15 and then shut it again: that’s to increase testosterone levels going in the brain, and has been found to do so in both men and women. Meanwhile, the cortisol goes down.
The professor practices the routine himself ahead of presentations: “Squeezing the hand gives a little boost to the brain. It increases activity in the left side of the brain. When you are anxious or excited you can feel your heart going bang, bang, bang, and the same hormone affects you differently only depending on the context that your mind imposes upon it. He explains that if you are anxious then the cortisol released, makes your performance worse. But if you flip the anxiety over to excitement, then this boosts performance. “There are so many little mind hacks we can use on the brain. It’s a programmable machine.”
As you would expect, psychologists disagree about the real power of the pose. Some rubbish the stance as nonsense, arguing that it does nothing to smooth the nerves and just makes the person look silly.
Robertson disagrees, adding that even extreme Superman versions of the pose work. “As it is for purely internal consumption, then I guess it’s really about whatever gets your confidence mojo working.”
One of the first psychologists to go public with the performance booster was Harvard professor and social psychologist Amy Cuddy, who agrees with Robertson that our body language not only affects how others see us but more importantly, how we view ourselves. Cuddy’s 2012 TED talk on the topic now has 46.8 million views. That’s an awful lot of Supermen and Super Women flying around out there. Go try it yourself: just keep your legs slightly closer together than the Tories.