Social Psychologist, Author Says Social Media Brings Out Bullying in People

Addressing a ‘New Norm’

Amy Cuddy

Amy Cuddy addresses the audience of more than 1,400 people at Bay Path University’s Women’s Leadership Conference.

“We’re starting to see civility as a luxury.” That was how social psychologist, author, and educator Amy Cuddy described a changed landscape that has perpetuated a culture of adult bullying, not just on social media but offline as well. As she talked about this subject at Bay Path University’s recent Women’s Leadership Conference, she was speaking from experience — she has been savaged on social media as her research on the broad subject of ‘power posing’ has come into question and doubt. But she said she now has plenty of company, and the trend is disturbing on many levels.

At the point in her talk when the subject turned to the now-famous “Fearless Girl” statue on Wall Street, Amy Cuddy’s voice started to crack slightly.

It wouldn’t be the last time, either, but we’ll get back to that later.

The images of the statue — and there were many in Cuddy’s presentation that kicked off Bay Path University’s annual Women’s Leadership Conference on April 6 — were poignant on many levels. On the surface, they brought a new dimension to Cuddy’s comments — not to mention her substantial volume of research — on the subject of body language (non-verbal communication) and, more specifically, the effects of ‘power posing.’

Indeed, Cuddy became famous in her field, social psychology, for a 2010 study that found that such posing — raising one’s arms above one’s head as a triumphant athlete might, or assuming the ‘Wonder Woman hands on hip look,’ for example — not only elicited feelings of power from those who did so, but they also raised testosterone levels and lowered stress levels as well.

As she placed images of women and especially young girls replicating the “Fearless Girl” stance on the massive screens in the exhibition hall at the MassMutual Center, Cuddy talked about how striking that defiant, ‘staring-down-the-charging-bull’ pose and others designed to convey confidence but not arrogance, can change the course of everything from an upcoming job interview to a career to a life.

But Cuddy has given that talk countless times before. It’s the one where she suggests that going into a bathroom stall prior to an interview or important meeting and power posing might better prepare the individual for what will come next — a talk that has elicited cheers as well as tears.

On this stage and on this morning, however, Cuddy would delve into some new material. And she admitted afterward that it took 18 months, by her estimates, to work up the courage to do so.

“I’ve been avoiding talking about it publicly because when you call out your bullies you’re likely to experience backlash, because they hate that,” said Cuddy as she referenced what has happened to her over the past several years as the results of that 2010 study came under withering public scrutiny and she suffered often very personal attacks on social media. “I’m still terrified.”

Cuddy told her audience that what’s transpired is not a case of a researcher and rising star within the field of social psychology having skin too thin to handle what has become a changed landscape when it comes to challenges to research and published papers. And it’s not an effort to deflect attention away from mounting evidence that there are no hormonal effects from power posing.

Instead, it’s adult bullying in its purest form and an example of what’s going on in many fields and society in general. And those sentiments are backed up by these comments given by one of Cuddy’s peers to the New York Times for a piece published last fall titled “When the Revolution Came for Amy Cuddy.”

“Amy has been the target of mockery and meanness on Facebook, on Twitter, and blog posts,” Jay Van Bavel, a social psychologist from New York University told the Times. “I feel like, wow, I have never seen that in science … I’ve never seen public humiliation like that.”

The low point, Cuddy said, came when a blogger whom she described as her “main bully” goaded her collaborator on the 2010 study into publicly distancing herself from their work.

“That’s one of the most effective bully moves — to get the people closest to you to turn on you — and that’s when I felt hopeless,” she told BusinessWest after her talk, adding that she no longer has such feelings and is in a better place overall because of a solid support network but also a deep belief in her work and her message.

“I talk often about believing in yourself and buying your own story — and I do,” she said. “I fully, 100% believe in my message, and that kept me afloat.”

And this brings us back to “Fearless Girl,” which is power posing personified. Only Cuddy calls it the “Brave Girl, because no one is fearless.”

And bravery is certainly one of the traits she said will be needed to stem a tide of uncivility and bullying on the Internet and in society in general, and change what has become in many ways a new norm — subject matter that constitutes the main thrust of Cuddy’s latest book, Bullies, Bystanders, and Bravehearts due out in 2020.

“Bravery is not glorious,” she said when asked how society might change the norm. “The first step is recognizing that bravery is not just running into a burning building to save lives; bravery often involves standing up to people in these social situations and putting your own relationships at risk.”

For this issue, BusinessWest took in Cuddy’s presentation and then talked with her about adult bullying and how the current landscape might be changed.

Bully Pulpit

It wasn’t long after the 2010 study on power posing was published that Cuddy started achieving something approaching rock-star status in the field of social psychology, which doesn’t have many of those.

The study was published in the prestigious journal Psychological Science and covered by a host of national news outlets, including the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, the Economist, the Guardian, Wired, Fast Company, and others.

In 2012, she gave a TED talk, “Your Body Language Shapes Who You Are,” that has been viewed more than 40 million times and is the second-most-viewed TED talk of all time. She was awarded a faculty position at Harvard, and there were countless appearances on television and lucrative speaking appearances around the globe. Her first book, Presence: Bringing Your Boldest Self to Your Biggest Challenges, became a New York Times, Washington Post, USA Today, Wall Street Journal, Publisher’s Weekly, and Globe and Mail bestseller.

And then?

Let’s just say that Cuddy became — and probably because of all that fame and everything that came with it — perhaps the most visible target within what’s been called a methodological-reform movement and replication crisis that has shaken up the field as it has raised questions about the reliability of vast amounts of research within the broad realm of social psychology.

Amy Cuddy, center, with Bay Path University President Carol Leary, left, and Bay Path student Kaitlyn Leibowitz

Amy Cuddy, center, with Bay Path University President Carol Leary, left, and Bay Path student Kaitlyn Leibowitz, Cuddy’s assistant for the day.

To make a rather long story somewhat short, the 2010 study on power posing came under intense scrutiny, and its results, specifically those related to hormonal, or ‘downsteam’ effects — evidence that such posing increased testosterone levels and reduced cortisol levels (which are associated with stress) — could not be replicated in many cases.

Cuddy eventually became a punching bag for a number of influential bloggers, including Andrew Gelman, a professor of Statistics and Political Science at Columbia. While Cuddy certainly wasn’t the only researcher to come under scrutiny, she became almost an obsession for him.

Gelman would eventually post a challenge to Dana Carney, Cuddy’s collaborator in the 2010 study, asking her, “when people screw up or cheat in their research, what do their collaborators say?”

Carney would respond, a day or so later, with a post to her website that said, among other things, “I do not believe that power-pose effects are real” and “I discourage others from studying power poses.”

This was that low point Cuddy described earlier, but overall, she endured more than two years of unrelenting scrutiny and criticism that significantly impacted her health — her weight dropped to 100 pounds at one point — and prompted her at times to stop taking phone calls and move almost completely offline.

Things became so bad that Cuddy, who suffered a traumatic brain injury in a car accident the summer after her sophomore year in college and wasn’t able to return to school until four years after that mishap, told the audience of more than 1,400 people that she would rather go through that experience again than be subjected to what she went through between 2015 and 2017, and is still experiencing today on some levels.

As she stood on that stage at the MassMutual Center, Cuddy made it clear that she stands by her work on the subject of power posing and reiterated that she doesn’t have any real problem with people questioning or trying to replicate her research.

But she does have a problem with bullying, which is the only way she can describe what she’s been subjected to. And she has taken her own experiences and extrapolated them out over society in general. This new course of study, if you will, led to the book Bullies, Bystanders, and Bravehearts, three constituencies she described in great detail for her audience as part of a call to arms of sorts on the subject of adult bullying.

Taking a Stand

As she talked about her experiences and adult bullying in general, and became emotional at times as she did so, Cuddy, who never identified anyone by name, put up on screen the one- sentence reply that the blogger Gelman gave the New York Times reporter who wrote the aforementioned piece on Cuddy when she asked if Gelman would consider meeting with Cuddy to hash out their differences: “I don’t like interpersonal conflict.”

And she left it there for a while to let it sink in as she intimated that such sentiments are just one of many factors contributing to an environment that is fast becoming untenable and is ruining lives.

“Sticks and stones … we can survive that,” she told her audience. “Name calling in this domain, among adults — we can’t. It’s killing people; it’s leading to all kinds of problems.

“We’re starting to see civility as a luxury,” she went on. “And that means we’re in trouble. We’re seeing this in social media, but what’s happening is that this same social media behavior is being played out offline as well, because it’s become normalized to talk to each other with disgust and contempt and moral outrage.

“It’s so common that now we think that’s the norm,” she continued. “We think it’s OK to treat people that way. And by directing all of our anxieties about bullying to our kids, we avoid talking about the elephant in the room, which is bullying among adults. We are getting it wrong.”

In an interview after her presentation, Cuddy acknowledgd that adult bullying is certainly nothing new — “we’ve been shunning people for thousands of years” — but social media has changed the landscape and perpetuated the practice.

“Social media has given us the perception that bullying is normative,” she explained, “because everyone can see all these interactions, and because bullies are louder and more prolific than non-bullies. They are highly motivated by their sense of outrage and by their sense of resentment.”

Elaborating, she said that, while researchers have not yet been able to put a number to it, anecdotal evidence on moral-outrage triggers suggests that social media has brought out bullying in more people because of the way it makes such behavior appear normal and, in many respects, accepted.

“Our behavior is largely based on what we perceive other people to be doing — it’s based on social norms,” she told BusinessWest. “When you see the Internet littered with this kind of bullying trash, you begin to believe that this is normal behavior, and you start to behave in a way that’s similar.”

She’s not sure when it all started, but she said things turned sharply south just over a decade ago, and the first real wave came in the form of a tsunami crashing down on women in the IT field.

“And it was absolutely brutal,” she noted. “Women left the field because they were receiving death and rape threats all the time. It started there because tech people knew how to use the Internet, so they weaponized it pretty quickly, and I think they were very effective at doing that.

“If that had not happened, I’m not sure we’d be where we are,” she went on. “People started following that; it became a model of how you can bully someone into submission or exile, and it was nasty, and it was effective.”

How can society stop this trend of bullying people into submission?

Perhaps the most important step is for bystanders to become bravehearts and stand up to the bullies, she said, straining to hold back tears as she talked about how the social-psychology community, her peers, essentially stood and watched as she was pilloried on social media, mostly, if not entirely, out of fear that the same would happen to them.

“What hurt me the most was the inaction of bystanders,” she told her audience, stopping for a minute to gather herself. “This was a community I loved; I got e-mails all the time from people saying, ‘I’m really sorry about what’s happening to you — I wish I could do something, but I don’t want them to attack me.’

“Don’t ever say that to someone who’s being bullied,” she went on. “It’s not supportive, and it was horrifying and chilling to see people on the sidelines watching this happen and shutting up and doing nothing. I became the butt of jokes — there was an April Fools Day joke about me that circulated like crazy — and people were talking about me like I wasn’t human. It was vicious and relentless.”

Perhaps even more chilling is that this is happening to growing numbers of people, said Cuddy, adding that, as she researched the subject, she became increasingly alarmed at just how common it was.

Progress will come only when the bystanders find the courage to get off the sidelines, hold bullies accountable, and eventually change the norm.

Posing a Question

Cuddy has reached a point where she has altered her thinking on the hormonal effects of power posing. Those sentiments came after several studies failed to replicate the results of the 2010 study.

But she is still a firm believer in power posing and its ability to positively influence moods and emotions. That was obvious from her comments to those in attendance at the women’s conference.

Also obvious are her views on adult bullying, society’s new norm, and what it means moving forward.

She suspects that maybe the worst is over for her, although what has happened will leave a lasting mark. Meanwhile, she suspects that the bullies will simply move on to a new target, which is equally distressing.

As she wrapped up her talk at the women’s conference, she put on the screen that famous quote from the poet Maya Angelou: “Stand up straight and realize who you are, that you tower over your circumstances.”

She didn’t put it there as an endorsement for power posing. Instead, it was meant to encourage the bystanders, get them off the sidelines, and stare down the bullies.

And that’s another reason the “Fearless Girl” statue carries such importance and poignancy in this presentation.

George O’Brien can be reached at [email protected]