Feeling powerful today? Then you probably think you are taller than you really are.
And if you feel a tad powerless, you probably feel like the runt of the litter.
In a provocative new study by researchers at Washington University in St. Louis and Cornell University in Ithaca, N.Y., participants in three experiments who were made to feel powerful estimated their own physical height significantly higher than it really was. And conversely, those made to feel less powerful thought they were shorter in stature than they actually were.
The experiments, which included 266 participants, offer strong evidence that feeling powerful actually alters self-perception. Research by others has focused on how actual physical strength or height can help one climb the ladder of success, but this is believed to be the first study of the flip side of that coin. Can feeling powerful simply make one feel taller?
A few years ago Michelle M. Duguid of Washington University and Jack A. Goncalo of Cornell were talking about how their lives had changed since their undergraduate days:
"Now that we have jobs," Goncalo recalled in a telephone interview, "the rooms feel smaller."
The two suspected that having jobs gave them a feeling of power, which made them feel literally bigger, and they toyed with the idea of finding out if that was actually the case. Not much happened initially, because such a study would take years, but a national disaster brought their question to center stage.
As oil from the deadly 2010 BP spill in the Gulf of Mexico inched towards the shores along the gulf, BP's chairman, Carl-Henric Svanberg, uttered this statement, which became the first sentence of their study:
"We care about the small people."
That statement "generated a firestorm of controversy when he twice referred to the victims of the largest oil spill in United States history as the 'small people,'" the study, to be published in Psychological Science, notes.
"That quote really got us going," Goncalo said. It suggested that self-deception "is a real phenomenon that actually happens among powerful people."
Participants in the experiments were divided randomly into two groups, and the researchers made sure that the members of both groups were approximately the same average height. In the first experiment, they completed tasks, like recalling an incident in which they had power over someone else. That type of manipulation is commonly used in psychological research, in this case to make the subjects feel powerful, or less powerful.
Each participant stood next to an adjustable pole and was asked to estimate how much taller the pole was then he or she was. In each case, the pole had been adjusted to be exactly 20 inches taller than the participant was. So the correct answer, of course, would be 20 inches.
The subjects who were conditioned to think of themselves as powerful judged the pole, on average, to be 19 inches taller, or an inch less than it actually was. But the participants who thought they had less power thought the pole was more than 25 inches taller.
The emphasis of the study is on people who feel powerful, but the most dramatic effect was on those who felt powerless.
"Objects in your environment loom larger when you are feeling powerless," Goncalo said. "The room feels bigger, everyone else seems taller. You are a little person inhabiting space."