But even that can be fleeting. When Rucker stands in front of his students and lectures them on the psychology of consumer spending, he's in control. But when the time comes for his students to evaluate his performance, he's a wimp. He'll probably head for the nearest BMW dealer.
If his study is on target, when the sense of power goes down, so does your wallet. That's partly because we tend to associate power with status. So, if we lose power, the researchers contend, we may try to make up for that loss, at least emotionally, by buying a status symbol. Yet, not all status symbols work.
A powerful executive who has had a bad day might feel a little loss of power, but he's less likely to go out and buy an expensive watch to smooth his ruffled feathers, because he knows he's still the top dog. But a banker who has just been demoted might be very tempted to snatch up that watch.
"He got demoted, but he just got something that signals that he's still someone," Rucker said.
That's compensatory consumption at work.
Rucker said the purpose of their research isn't to tell corporations how to get more out of dwindling resources. It's to help us help ourselves.
"This is a consumer welfare piece," he said of the study. "We're trying to understand how the consumer psyche works in order to help [consumers] protect themselves."
Maybe if we understand why we're buying all that stuff we can't afford, we can come up with another way of coping. But don't yell back at the boss. Instead, the study suggests, take a hint from the song "All Falls Down" by Kanye West. Do something else that makes you feel like you have status, even if you don't.
Like West's song says, "Couldn't afford a car, so she named her daughter Alexus."
Nice name, and with a gentle bouquet of power.
Lee Dye is a former science writer for the Los Angeles Times. He now lives in Juneau, Alaska.