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Powerful People Live Large

Posted by Richard Conniff on January 18, 2012

A new study finds that the psychological experience of power makes people feel taller than they are.  The paper begins with snarky promise, quoting  BP Chairman Carl-Henric Svanberg, who was referring to the victims of the largest oil spill ever when he said “We care about the small people.”  Here’s how the paper starts:

Height is an oft used metaphor for power: Powerful people “feel like the big man on campus” and “people look up to them.” Development psychologists have suggested that a metaphorical association between power and height may take root very early as, for instance, children are confronted with taller parents who have power over them and during adolescence taller children use their strength to physically coerce smaller children. This association continues to be reinforced as taller people earn higher salaries, are more likely to be found in
higher status occupations, to emerge as leaders and to win presidential elections.

But even if they are not taller to start with, people who get power quickly come to share that high-and-mighty feeling.  Here’s the press release from Washington University:

“Although a great deal of research has shown that more physically imposing individuals are more likely to acquire power, this work is the first to show that powerful people feel taller than they are,” says Michelle M. Duguid, PhD, assistant professor of organizational behavior at Olin Business School.

Duguid is co-author, with Jack Concalo, PhD, of Cornell University, of “Living Large: The Powerful Overestimate Their Own Height,” published in the current issue of the journal Psychological Science.

In a series of three experiments, the researchers found a definite correlation between feeling powerful and feeling tall, and even suggest that future research may want to examine whether employers should consider placing short high-ranking workers in higher offices to raise their psychological sense of power.

“Height is often used as a metaphor for power,” Duguid says. “Powerful people ‘feel like the big man on campus,’ and people ‘look up to them.’ We find that the psychological experience of power may cause individuals to feel taller than objective measurement indicates they really are.”

In the researcher’s first experiment, some participants were asked to recall an incident in which they had power over another individual while others were asked to recall an incident in which someone else had power over them.

They were then asked to estimate their size in relation to a pole that had been set precisely 20 inches taller than their actual heights.

Those who had been conditioned to feel ‘empowered’ thought the pole was nearer in height to them than those who’d been made to feel subordinate.

In the second experiment, two pairs of volunteers were asked to role play a scenario in which one was a manager and the other an ordinary worker.

They were then asked to give their exact heights in a questionnaire, with those having played the role of manager supplying exaggerated figures.

Finally, the participants were conditioned in the same way as they were in the first experiment, and then asked to choose an avatar in a second-life game that they thought best represented them. The more empowered volunteers consistently chose taller avatars.

“These findings may be a starting point for exploring the reciprocal relationship between the psychological and physical experiences of power,” Duguid says. “An interesting direction for future research would be to determine whether associations between power and size extend to other self-perceptions and self-categorization.”

Duguid, Michelle M. and Goncalo, Jack A., “Living Large: The Powerful Overestimate Their Own Height” (2011). You can read it here.

Also check out one of my past articles about how the experience of power changes people.  That’st’s also, in large part, the subject of my books The Natural History of the Rich and The Ape in the Corner Office.

 

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