Want to boost confidence? Channel Wonder Woman

Illustration by Thomas Pullin
‘Presumably, when things like power poses work, it’s partly because I expect them to.’ Illustration: Thomas Pullin for the Guardian

As you may have heard, and pardon the mixed metaphor, psychologists are up in arms about putting your hands on your hips. I’m talking about “power poses”, the simple physical gestures that, according to a TED talk by the Harvard academic Amy Cuddy, can transform your life. Before a job interview, adopt a pose like Wonder Woman – feet apart, hands on hips, shoulders back – and your stress hormones will fall, testosterone will rise, you’ll feel a surge of boldness, and have more chance of landing the job.

Or maybe not. A major attempt to replicate the original studies failed, and one of the researchers has admitted: “I do not believe that ‘power pose’ effects are real.” A related finding – that merely fixing a smile on your face can make you more upbeat – is looking shaky, too. All these techniques for boosting confidence feel like they ought to work. But scientists are no longer confident that they do.

What’s weird about the gleeful debunking of power poses is… obviously they work. For me, I mean. Before a public talk or similarly daunting situation, if I remember to stand up straight and broaden my chest, I feel more confident. (Try it now. Unslouch – because you were slouching, weren’t you? – and see if you notice a mood shift.) Likewise, making myself smile usually brings a small improvement; it’s no cure for depression, but the difference is detectable. There’s a reason people have been saying “fake it till you make it” for decades: experience shows it’s true.

Of course, that’s not what researchers mean when they ask if the poses “work”. I’ve no idea if my hormones are changed, or even if most other people feel the confidence boost. These questions are intellectually intriguing, and scientists must try to get them right. But when I’m considering implementing a trick like power posing, they’re not hugely relevant. If my objective is to feel more confident, the relevant question is: do I?

Some of the disconnect between science and real life stems from the placebo effect. Presumably, when things like power poses work, it’s partly because I expect them to. For researchers, that’s a problem, so they’re constantly seeking ways to run blind tests in which people don’t realise they’re power posing, smiling, etc. (In one study, people were asked to hold a pen between their teeth, making the corners of the mouth rise as if in a grin.)

Walking into the job interview, though, you don’t care if the added confidence comes from expectations. You just want the added confidence. It’s quite possible that Cuddy’s bestselling book on the subject, Presence, could turn out to be both a) based on shoddy science, and b) truly helpful to thousands.

Perhaps the really interesting question these debunkings raise is: why are we so desperate to have our toolbox of everyday techniques “grounded in science” to start with? Wisdom results from a mixture of common sense, experience, and research. Nobody lives their lives solely in accordance with the findings of science. Nor should they. Power-pose your heart out, if it helps.


Chick’n’Sours, London WC2: ‘Like KFC, only much better’ – restaurant review

Chick’n’Sours: ‘This is fried chicken that should get all the applause.’ Photograph: Sophia Evans for the Guardian

Walking to Chick’n’Sours, I pass two of the new breed of fried chicken joints: it seems we can’t get enough of poncified fast food. And when there’s a market for it, why not? If our new critical obergruppenführers, the Instagram “influencers”, are to be believed, there are two massive current food trends: simplistically, fatty for boys, skinny for girls. (Don’t get me started: the news about teenage girls and the epidemic of poor mental health and self-harming? Social media, I’m looking directly at you.) Chicken neatly straddles the two, even when fried. Ker-ching!

It’s with this dyspeptic frame of mind that I approach Chick’n’Sours. I know all about chef Carl Clarke, frenetic former DJ and pop-up supremo; I’ve checked out his original Haggerston outpost for a memorable whole fried chicken. But can what works in trend-lovin’ east London manage a successful transfer to the West End?

In all its high-kicking, crowd-pleasing glory, it most certainly can. This is fried chicken that should get all the applause (with the exception of one vegetarian, mushroom-based “bun”, the menu is mostly fried chicken). It’s not just junk food wantonly gourmet-fied; it’s fine cooking in its own right.

So we have chicken and more chicken, including a vast “guest fry” of drumstick and thigh from what seem to be the world’s biggest birds (free-range, herb-fed, from Pilmoor Grange in Yorkshire), crisp-fried and sticky with a hot and fragrant General Tso glaze. Hot and numbing wings, too, though we’re not sure that’s what we get. Rather than something rustling with Szechuan peppercorns, we get an unholy congress of Korean double-fried style and cornershop Chinese sweet’n’sour, complete with gloopy, scarlet sauce. It’s sluttily great. Xian Xian chicken tenders bring a huge plateful of breast meat, rugged with cumin and chilli.

K-Pop Bun
K-Pop Bun. Photograph: Sophia Evans for the Guardian

Even side dishes and starters are firecrackers: Szechuan aubergine is a squelch of earthy vegetable in crisp batter, and alive with the “fish-fragrant” flavours of chilli bean paste and Chinese vinegar. The antidote to all this fried excess comes from ginger miso slaw, pickled watermelon or hot-and-sour pineapple: a magnificent treatment of the fruit, vivid with pungent XO (dried seafood and pork) sauce, lime juice and peanuts.

After a few dishes, there’s a feeling that your tastebuds are being held hostage and bludgeoned into whimpering submission. Forget subtlety, this is food that biffs and pows, makes you gasp and grin: the outrageously crisp chicken, the electrifying pineapple, the nachos. Oh, man, the “Mexi-Nese” nachos: I thought I was way too grown up to order such teenage pothead favourites, but these – freshly fried corn chips, a ragù made from chicken, fermented chilli paste and smoked bacon, lashings of pickled jalapeños, kimchi and a gloriously plasticky cheese sauce with a touch of anchovy – these are adult enough to come with a triple-X certificate.

The most vanilla choice is the Colonel, a homage to the white-suited godfather of fried chicken. As towering in height as Chick’n’Sours’ trademark K-Pop (a Korean-style bun), it’s deceptively soothing with its iceberg lettuce laced with buttermilk and herb mayo, and fried thigh boosted with sticky cheese and pickles. But it is remarkable, somehow managing to taste like the first time you had KFC, a weird, mesmerising return to the palate of childhood, only better. Much, much better.


Blind date: ‘I told him about the first time I changed my niece’s nappy’

Hannah and Simon
Did Hannah and Simon exchange numbers? Photograph: Sarah Lee, Alicia Canter; both for the Guardian

Simon on Hannah

What were you hoping for?
That whoever turned up wasn’t a serial killer, colleague or mime artist.

First impressions?
Nice, and the chat came easily.

What did you talk about?
Family, favourite cheese and explosive diarrhoea.

Any awkward moments?
When I pushed away the table to go to the bathroom and nearly fell over.

Good table manners?
Even though she was very clear at the start that she doesn’t share food, Hannah did, in fact, share her food.

Best thing about Hannah?
She was very easy to talk to.

Would you introduce her to your friends?
No, my friends are scoundrels.

Describe her in three words
Friendly, sarcastic, intelligent.

What do you think she made of you?
Hopefully: friendly, sarcastic, intelligent. Probably: idiotic, sarcastic, rambling.

Did you go on somewhere?
No. Hannah had to bake a chicken pie and I had to pack for a work trip.

And… did you kiss?
A goodnight peck on the cheek.

If you could change one thing about the evening, what would it be?
I wouldn’t have eaten goat’s cheesecake. It made me feel sad about cheesecake and goat’s cheese all at once.

Marks out of 10?

Would you meet again?
We don’t have any plans to.

Hannah on Simon

What were you hoping for?
Someone to turn up.

First impressions?
Attractive, tall, well-dressed.

What did you talk about?
Bad quiz team names, festivals, and how he was picked as a “poster boy” for Guardian Soulmates ads.

Any awkward moments?
I told him about the first time I changed my niece’s nappy.

Good table manners?

Best thing about Simon?
His sense of humour is dry.

Would you introduce him to your friends?
Yes, I think they’d approve.

Describe him in three words.

Funny, friendly, chatty.
What do you think he made of you?
Hopefully able to hold my own.


The women hounded for giving birth outside the system

Rebecca Schiller

Sarah Holdway was sitting outside her Yorkshire home in July while her baby, Violet, slept. As her four older children picnicked beside her, two strangers approached. “The man said he was from Humberside police,” says Sarah, “and that this was a social worker and that we had been reported for child trafficking.”

Three months earlier, Sarah’s baby had been born in an unassisted birth – also known as a freebirth. After two homebirths attended by medical professionals, she planned for her third and fourth babies to be born without medical help. In England and Wales, there is no legal obligation to have medical care in pregnancy or childbirth, her midwife had been fully supportive of her decision, and both births went well. Pregnant for a fifth time, living in a new area, Sarah, 33, once again gave birth easily at home.

Weeks later, a health visitor (who hadn’t met the family) grew concerned after a clerical error involving Violet’s birth registration alerted her to the family. Sarah believes that a lack of understanding of the law, and suspicion of the family’s alternative lifestyle and the unassisted birth, played a major role in police and social services being informed that lives might be at risk.

The police and social worker were reassured that Violet was indeed Sarah’s baby and, after asking specifically about the unassisted birth, they left. Sarah’s case was eventually closed with no further action taken.
Freebirthing: is giving birth without medical support safe?
Read more

Social services involvement following pregnancy or birth choices is not isolated to Sarah’s case, however. Jean Robinson, president of the Association for Improvements in the Maternity Services, says her organisation has dealt with many hundreds of cases where such choices have prompted referrals to child safeguarding teams.

I first became aware of the issue through my work as chief executive of the human rights in childbirth charity Birthrights. Since 2013, our legal advice service has helped 25 women with problems related to social services.

Laura Moore, 33, from Bedfordshire contacted us earlier this year with a copy of a letter from her obstetrician. It said that if she didn’t change her birth plans, “This may be a safeguarding issue with reference to your unborn child which may have to be addressed further.” Laura says that she felt threatened by the letter. “The safeguarding issue was being used to intimidate me into complying with their care plan.” This was her third pregnancy following two straightforward births.

“I am obese and in both previous pregnancies I had gestational diabetes,” she says. After a range of tests in her first pregnancy, she agreed with her doctor to a more hands-off approach in her second, as long as her blood sugar levels remained under control. All went well and after a happy homebirth she requested the same approach for her third pregnancy, but instead of support she received the uncompromising letter.

Elizabeth Prochaska, a human rights barrister and chair and co-founder of Birthrights, says: “The suggestion of referral should never be used to intimidate, bully or coerce someone into accepting a particular medical intervention.”

Indeed, if a woman has made a decision, she can’t be compelled to change her plans unless she lacks mental capacity. Such referrals are also unhelpful to social workers, as Maris Stratulis of the British Association of Social Workers explains. “If a referral to social services is used as a ‘threat’ by a professional, it does not provide a good foundation for a social worker to build trust and rapport.”

After Birthrights’ involvement in Laura’s case, Bedford hospital wrote to Prochaska confirming that “the woman has the right to what she chooses”. It offered an apology for the remark regarding a referral to social services, adding, “We would have no reason to do this unless we have proven concerns about the parenting, which we did not.”

The obstetrician has been referred for further learning.

The use of social services as a tool for coercion also featured in a 2012 case concerning Southern general hospital in Glasgow. The hospital was forced to apologise after a woman was bullied into taking precautionary antibiotics during labour in hospital. Following her complaint to the Scottish Public Services Ombudsman, the hospital admitted that she had been threatened with having her baby removed from her care in order to gain consent for its planned course of treatment. The ombudsman upheld her complaint, stating that she “did not properly consent to the treatment administered and was wrongly put under extraordinary pressure during labour when she was in a very vulnerable situation”.