Failure Is Moving Science Forward

  • 2016-03-29
  • Five Thirty Eight

While I paced around the green room at a recent TEDx event in Colorado, one of the other speakers offered the rest of us some advice on how to ease our nerves. “Raise your arms up in the air and make yourself big — it will help you feel powerful!” It was scientifically proven, she told us (she’d seen it in a TED talk), that adopting a so-called power pose — shoulders wide, arms strong — could raise your testosterone levels, lower your stress hormones, and make you feel more confident and commanding.

Like everyone else, I was nervous. This wasn’t my usual kind of speech; it was a performance — a scripted story that wasn’t supposed to soundscripted, told with no notes and no cues. I knew my lines by heart, but I also knew that one moment of doubt was all it would take for me to draw a blank up on stage. So just before I walked through the curtains, I took a deep breath and raised my arms overhead as if signaling victory. I don’t know if the power pose helped me, but it didn’t seem to hurt.

What I didn’t say back in the green room was that although one highly touted study had shown how adopting a power pose could alter your hormone levels and make you more bold, another group of researchers had tried to repeat the study and found no such effect. It’s possible that the power pose phenomenon was nothing more than a spurious result.

Power poses aren’t the only well-publicized finding called into question by further research. Psychology, biomedicine and numerous other fields of science have fallen into a crisis of confidence recently, after seminal findings could not be replicated in subsequent studies. These widespread problems with reproducibility underscore a problem that I discussed here last year — namely, that science is really, really hard. Even relatively straightforward questions cannot be definitively answered in a single study, and the scientific literature is riddled with results that won’t stand up. This is the way science works — it’s a process of becoming less wrong over time.