April 20, 2021

One listless day at my last full-time job (which was the kind of job where every day was listless, because it was a media company in a constant state of crisis and reorganisation), an email arrived from the CEO. Things were often stressful and frequently dull — the acute periods of anxiety that your job might just evaporate were, in a way, respite from the insistent anxiety that you weren’t even sure what your job was anymore. But you couldn’t say the CEO didn’t want the workforce to be happy.

We once had a compulsory company mass choir where we had to learn “Don’t Stop Me Now” in three-part harmony. Fun! And we had a talk from a mountaineer who had climbed Everest, which I assume was supposed to be an inspiring exemplar of determination in a hostile environment that is a bit like the current media environment. But I remember left me worrying about the frozen barrels of human waste just off to the side of the slides.

And then we had this email, which offered a guaranteed way of lifting our beleaguered spirits to new heights of productivity. All we had to do, it explained, was assume powerful poses, and we would become powerful! Out with slouching, in with wide-legged stances and chins held aloft. Astonishing, yes, but there was science to support it — as you would find, if you watched a 2012 TED Talk by psychologist Amy Cuddy, which has now been viewed over 60 million times.

Power posing, as laid out in a 2010 paper co-authored by Cuddy, is one of the great success stories of popular psychology. It didn’t hurt that it “fit neatly into the established self-help niche in American life”, as Jesse Singal explains in his new book The Quick Fix: Why Fad Psychology Can’t Fix Our Social Ills. And nor was it any disadvantage at all that Cuddy was a brilliant speaker with a powerful story of overcoming personal adversity (she recovered from a traumatic brain injury to achieve a PhD from Princeton, and then a job at Harvard). The power posing theory had almost everything to recommend it — apart from the solid basis in experimental science that it was claimed to have.

Hear Jesse Singal discuss his latest book with Freddie Sayers

The peak of power posing’s influence, in the UK at least, probably came at the 2015 Conservative conference, when George Osborne appeared on stage with his legs splayed as though he expected a train to run through the middle of them. By the time it was being offered to me as a corporate pick-me-up, its reputation was already on the skids. The two keys claims Cuddy made were that, compared to a control group, power posers saw increased levels of testosterone, and an increased propensity for risk-taking. A 2015 attempt at replication (that is, rerunning the experiment to see if the result stood) had failed; and then in 2016, one of Cuddy’s co-authors on the original paper disowned the findings entirely.

The apparently empirical effect the researchers had observed was actually generated by something known as “p-value hacking”, in which results are included or excluded until something that looks like statistical significance is achieved, and the work becomes suddenly of interest to academic journals (who, like everyone else, are much more excited by a sexily counterintuitive finding than no finding at all).

And so the story of power posing, and its journey from one paper that ought to have been challenged at peer review, to near-universal acceptance and an appearance in my work inbox, is a parable for the way bad ideas promulgate themselves — and a perfect example of the kind of bad idea that prospers.

Something like power posing appeals because it makes you feel like the success is a matter of volition. Reading about it at my sad strip-lit desk, in an email from the same address that had announced multiple rounds of redundancy, looking round an office haunted by the empty chairs of the ones who’d already gone, I did not feel any filip to my sense of self-command, however. I felt that I was being cheated, played, fobbed off.

Like all the examples looked at in Singal’s book, power posing sold an individual solution to an institutional or structural problem. After all, if you feel powerless, the most likely reason is that you are powerless. Even if it made you take more risks, which it apparently doesn’t, and even if that were obviously a good thing, which it isn’t necessarily (as Singal wryly asks, “Does American society, and the American economy … suffer from a dearth of pointless risk taking?”), it’s not clear how that would ultimately protect you from the vicissitudes of the market, to which all but the absurdly rich (like Osborne) are beholden.

Similarly, the doctrine of self-esteem pitched the idea that people would do better if they just felt better about themselves. It turned out this was wrong in many ways, but one of the most grimly amusing pieces of evidence against it is this: some research, explains Singal, found that “criminals actually had higher self-esteem than law-abiders”.

Later, the concept of “grit” — meaning “determination” — was picked up by the American education system as the secret of student success. Cultivate “grit” in the individual, and you could save them from failure. The shadow side of that faith, of course, is that failure must come down to a lack of grit: rather than addressing the gross inequalities that stymie children’s chances, interventions focused on changing the child, despite the fact that no one could convincingly explain what “grit” was measuring or how it was critical to achievement.

What’s fascinating about many of the “fads” Singal highlights is that they drew support from Left and Right: the Left could see an effort to mitigate unfair circumstances, and the Right could see the empowerment of the individual. Anyone in a position to control budgets could see that such interventions were blessedly inexpensive compared to other ways of approaching these problems. And so long as they seemed plausible and exciting, the question of whether they actually worked could be left to one side, like the unpleasant sewerage barrels no one wants to think about when celebrating their triumphant ascent of Everest.

Several of Singal’s examples have already started their slide towards irrelevance, but one of them is still going strong. The Implicit Association Test (IAT) caught the wave of Black Lives Matter-inspired corporate concern to address racism, and has been widely adopted by businesses. Its promise is that, by assessing your reaction time to certain words or phrases, it can judge the depth of your “implicit bias” against certain races. Once confronted with a numerical measure of your own racism, you can — the theory goes — begin to undo it.

The IAT’s claim is excitingly bold: “a ten-minute computer task with no connection to the real world could predict subtle forms of real-world discrimination,” Singal writes. But a connection between IAT results and in-practice racist attitudes hasn’t been established. The depressing conclusion is that an awful lot of people, who say that they awfully want to fix racism, are throwing resources at something that will not and cannot do the job.

There are two ways to read that, one of them generous and one of them cynical. Perhaps people simply don’t know that the IAT is a flawed implement, and if you explain that to them, they’ll move onto something else. But that hasn’t happened. In fact, expressing scepticism about the IAT is, as Singal found, treated as tantamount to trying to debunk the existence of racism itself (which, the logic goes, only a racist would do). The more you want to be perceived as anti-racist, the more fervently you are required to advocate for something that is no threat to racism at all.

So the cynical view is this. Things like the IAT and self-esteem and power posing and grit appeal precisely because they don’t work. At the institutional level, no one sincerely wants things to change, and when everything stays the same, and psychology fads make it possible to pin that on personal deficiency: you weren’t gritty, and you failed to address your implicit bias, and you slouched too much. Its nobody else’s fault that the same old messes persist. The real beauty of quick fixes — and the reason they’ll keep coming back, despite Singal’s entertaining and elegant broadside against them — it’s that they’re not really any kind of fix at all.