It's Time for a Power Trip

It's Time for a Power Trip

Why you should care

Because it turns out that you may actually be your own worst enemy.

If you ever feel like the weight of the world rests squarely on your shoulders, then it may be time for a power trip. Researchers have found that a positive, powerful self-image may be the key to easing the weight of one’s burdens.

A study has shown that our own sense of social power plays a strong role in determining how we perceive the weight of physical objects.

Up to 20 percent

That’s how much heavier objects feel to those who feel powerless in society, according to Eun Hee Lee, a doctoral candidate at the University of Cambridge.

“People always say when you feel a low sense of power, the world seems so different … I wanted to test whether the world is actually different to them,” Lee says. And apparently it is. Looking at weight perception, Lee and her colleagues conducted three studies, looking at both the correlation and causal effects to see “whether power alters the way people perceive physical properties of objects.”

Why would a suitcase feel heavier to someone who feels less powerful socially?

In all three studies, she saw a difference between those who feel powerless versus those with a greater sense of power: The “powerless” participants found objects to weigh up to 20 percent more than their “powerful” counterparts Lee then manipulated people’s sense of power, affecting their posture and thought processes. The initial idea held up.

Lee’s is the first study that links a social factor to physicality. “It’s quite surprising that a social factor can influence our cognitive abilities,” she says. Cognitive psychologists would say the perception of weight is based on muscle mass and physical traits, rather than emotional ones. “But I’ve shown that social power can change how we feel things.”

So why would a suitcase feel heavier to someone who feels less powerful socially? Lee believes it’s an evolutionary process: an adaptive mechanism, to be specific. Those who view themselves as powerless live in a state of uncertainty, wondering whether they can replenish their resources. So they tend to rely on “powerful” people for these resources. They hold back, rather than giving 100 percent in daily tasks. Those who feel more powerful, by contrast, know they control their ability to find resources and don’t mind expending all their energy.

In the workplace, this could mean that those who feel powerless also feel more challenged by their work and put less than 100 percent into their tasks. So both their work and social standing are put at risk.

And, there’s more bad news: “When we are feeling powerless, we’re not always aware of it,” Lee says. Meaning you can’t just fix it with positive thinking.

The good news: There are a few subtle ways in which we can all feel more powerful. She suggests people always sit in expansive, rather than crouched ways, with arms commanding their space, as opposed to more constricted postures. Lee recommends that people consciously look back on the times in their lives when they felt most powerful, as opposed to times in which they felt less effective.

“If people get into the habit of doing these things, then I think they will automatically tend to feel more powerful without being aware of it, which could benefit them in many ways,” Lee says.

Tricks of this sort, she says, can do us all a power of good.

This OZY encore was originally published March 3, 2014.

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