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."
Two other experiments, similar in design, reached the same conclusions. The findings have several implications, he added. Are people with less power more intimidated and unwilling to take risks? If so, are they always going to be pushed toward the bottom of the ladder?
Maybe they could be helped by physically elevating themselves above others, like putting their work station on stilts, or at least getting an office on the top floor of the building, the study suggests.
That might help, but it's no substitute for being big, according to other research. Evolutionary psychologists at Texas Tech University reported last October that people want their leaders to be big, or at least physically formidable. Those researchers found that taller candidates won 58 percent of U.S. presidential elections between 1789 and 2008.
Maybe what's really needed instead of presidential debates is a yard stick.
The fact that most humans shrink in the presence of giants shouldn't be all that surprising, perhaps. That's the way we began life.
As children, our parents were big. In grade school, the bigger kids pushed us around. In college, the football stars got the girls.
It's part of our evolutionary past, and it may be why the Texas Tech research referred to presidential elections as "caveman politics."
But here's betting all those aspirants to the nation's highest office think they're a lot taller than they really are.