Science News

Feeling powerless makes for a heavy load

Tue, 11th Feb 2014

Chris Smith

Listen Now    Download as mp3 from the show Green Food

Chris -   People who feel powerless perceive the world of weight very differently. That’s according to a new study out this week in the DepressionJournal of Psychology. Eun Hee Lee is a researcher at Cambridge University, she is the lead author welcome to the programme. So you found that people who feel powerless actually find things that are a demand on them physically more challenging?

Eun Hee -   Yes, so I did work on social power and how that influences our perceptions of physical properties like weight perception, how they feel the weight of objects. I asked people to lift those boxes as you can see.

Chris -   So, I've got a nice big box here, just a cardboard box.

Eun Hee -   Yeah, just cardboard boxes and all of them looking exactly the same, but I would load them with a different number of books to have different weight and I asked them to lift all these boxes.  And sometimes, for some of the studies, I actually manipulate people’s sense of power.  So, there’ll be two groups, a powerful and powerless group and they lift boxes and I compare the weight estimates that people give or I just look at like personal sense of power which is more like a trait power.  I try to see the relationship with that and with the weight estimates that people give again.

Chris -   So, we’re going to look how you manipulated people’s sense of empowerment in just a second.  So, the initial finding is that people who feel they're less powerful would judge a box which is a standard weight to be heavier than someone who is pretty pumped up feels that they are already pretty much in control and in pole position socially.

Eun Hee -   Yes.  So, about the manipulation that we’ve used...

Chris -   How did you do that?  So, you take someone and you make them feel powerless.  It doesn’t seem straightforward.

Eun Hee -   All powerful for both.  So, we used two different procedures.  So, it’s been kind of established in the literature of psychology and especially in social power.  So, first one we’ve used was this manipulation called posture manipulation.  So, we either tell them to sit in a way that's quite expansive.  So like they take bigger space on this nice ergonomic office chair.  So, I ask them to put their arms in the armrest, on the desk next to them, and ask them to cross their legs.  So for them, I think then that's for them to feel powerful whereas in the powerless condition, I would ask them to sit in a more constricted posture.  So, I ask them to put their hands under their thighs and put their legs together.  Yeah, that's how I did it for the posture manipulation.

Chris -   Did you explore with them when they were adopting those positions, whether they genuinely did feel more powerful or not?

Eun Hee -   We don't do that because it usually happens – what we think happens - unconsciously, so they're not actually aware that their sense of power changes.  Also, they're not aware that the sense of power and the weight box lifting is anything to do with it.  So, we are trying to see the unconscious influence on their weight estimates that they give.

Chris -   People who feel more socially empowered or less do judge the mass of the box to be different, do they?

Eun Hee -   Yes, different.  So, we found statistically different weight estimates that they give in these two groups and also three groups as well.  We had a neutral and control condition.

Chris -   How did you account for the findings?

Eun Hee -   In terms of mechanism really, we think this is like an adaptive mechanism that's evolved in us.  So for example, we know powerless people live in uncertainty and scarcity of resources.  So, maybe the exaggerated perception by powerless people might prevent them from taking further actions, exhausting all their limited resources.  So in a way, this will be adaptive.

Chris -   How might I apply this in my own life then?  If I go around taking up lots of desk space, does this make me feel better?  

Eun Hee -   I think it does definitely and one thing I think everyone should know from this research is that this relationship happens automatically.  They're not aware of this happening.  So sometimes, just because you feel quite low in the sense of power, you might be prevented from putting 100% effort into something that you're doing.  This will be disadvantageous in some situations.  So, I think if you're aware of this link, at least we’re not going to let that happen.

Chris -   If you feel stronger physically, does that then rub off on you socially?  Do you also have a sense of social empowerment anyway because you feel stronger physically?

Eun Hee -   Well, I've never felt about that.  So, that's the other way around.  But one thing I know is, if you think about the whole relationship between posture and their sense of power, how posture actually manipulated this sense of power socially, so maybe in that way, you're feeling like physically powerful could maybe lead you to feel quite powerful in like a social sense in that case.

Chris -   Eun Hee Lee from Cambridge University.


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