Man standing with arms raised and legs apart
Social and behavioural

"Expansive" body poses don't always signal dominance

Study of mannequin poses finds that different forms of expansiveness can also communicate joy or awe.

20 September 2022

By Emma Young

People reliably interpret expansive poses — with the arms and legs spread and the head held high — as a signal of dominance, or power.

Well, that’s how I began a post from July this year. That was based on a body of research on ‘power posing’. But now a new study challenges the idea that expansive poses — those that take up the most physical space — invariably signal dominance. In fact, Patty Van Cappellen at Duke University and her team report in Emotion that we take the most expansive poses of all to signal something very different indeed.

Earlier research has certainly hinted that we can perceive a variety of states and emotions (not just dominance) from different body positions and stances. However, the team writes, there has been no systematic investigation. To try to address this, they ran three studies on a total of just under 700 people.

In the first, the participants were given small, jointed mannequins and asked to pose bodily expressions of dominance, joy, hope and awe. The researchers took frontal and side-on photos of each of these poses, and analysed them. They concluded that there were distinct typical poses for dominance, joy and awe, though not for hope.

Legs spaced and arms akimbo with the head facing forward was the most common ‘dominance’ pose. This fits with findings from earlier research. However, though expansiveness has often been tied to dominance, the most expansive poses of all (those that took up the most combined vertical and horizontal space) were used to express joy. Expressions of joy were more expansive in terms of height: often, the arms were raised, either in a Y shape or straight up in the air. But they also tended to be wider, too.

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Examples of mannequin poses from van Cappellen at al (2022)
Examples of mannequin poses showing dominance (A), joy (B), and awe (D). From Van Cappellen et al (2022)

For awe, the most frequent arm position was to have at least one hand to the head. Overall, awe poses got the same total expansiveness ratings as the dominance poses. For hope, there was no clear associated posture. (Is this surprising, I wonder — how would you naturally use your body to signal hope?)

In the second study, the researchers showed a fresh group of participants the photos of these mannequin poses. The participants had to rate them for expansiveness, dominance and also mood (ranging from extremely positive to extremely negative).

These participants agreed that the ‘joy’ postures were the most expansive, but both the ‘joy’ and ‘dominance’ postures got the highest dominance ratings. Though the awe poses took up the same amount of physical space as the dominance poses, they were perceived as being significantly less dominant. (I have to say that, to me, the typical ‘awe’ pose shown by the researchers in their paper looks like someone slapping their head after making a mistake…and conceding a mistake is clearly not a sign of dominance).

Still, as the team writes, "This suggests that it is a specific variety of postural expansion that is perceived as dominance, rather than expansiveness per se."

In the final study, the team systematically varied the position of the mannequin’s limbs and head and had participants rate the poses for dominance, mood, and other factors. Again, a combination of arms akimbo, with a stable stance, and a slightly raised head was perceived as conveying the greatest dominance, while poses in which the arms were held high and the head was tilted up got the most positive mood ratings, and highest scores for arousal and extraversion. This is consistent with the earlier findings that vertical expansiveness, with the arms high, is taken to indicate ‘high-arousal positive affect’, or joy (rather than dominance).

The researchers argue this work shows that it takes more than expansiveness to signal dominance: expansiveness can also signal joy, when the arms are high, and alternatively awe, when one or both hands are touching the head (this is the “signature” arm position for awe, the researchers write).

But there are a few reasons to be cautious about drawing strong conclusions from all this. Remember that the participants in the first study were forced to choose a posture to represent ‘awe’ and also ‘joy’. Other studies have instead linked raised arms with pride — suggesting that raised arms are not unique to joy. And aren’t we more likely to put our hands to our heads when feeling despair, or sadness, or grief, rather than awe? In relation to this, it’s worth noting that the ‘signature’ awe arm position was associated with the lowest mood ratings in the third study — perhaps because these participants were perceiving something like sadness, rather than awe.

This new work does not demonstrate that particular postures are reliably linked to a variety of emotions in real life. It does, though, show that there is more to dominance signalling than expansiveness, and it opens the door to further research to really get at how, in everyday life, we use our bodies to signal different states and emotions.