Powerful leaders, whether in the military, political or business arenas, often feel taller than they really are, according to a new study by an organizational behavior expert at Washington University in St. Louis.
“Although a great deal of research has shown that more physically imposing individuals are more likely to acquire power, this work is the first to show that powerful people feel taller than they are,” says Michelle M. Duguid, PhD, assistant professor of organizational behavior at Olin Business School and co-author of the new study.
“Height is often used as a metaphor for power,” she says.
“Powerful people ‘feel like the big man on campus,’ and people ‘look up to them.’ We find that the psychological experience of power may cause individuals to feel taller than objective measurement indicates they really are.”
In a series of three experiments, the researchers said they found a correlation between feeling powerful and feeling tall.
In the first experiment, some participants were asked to recall an incident in which they had power over another individual, while others were asked to recall an incident in which someone else had power over them.
They were then asked to estimate their size in relation to a pole that had been set precisely 20 inches taller than their actual heights. Those who had been conditioned to feel empowered thought the pole was nearer in height to them than those who’d been made to feel subordinate, the researchers report.
In the second experiment, two pairs of volunteers were asked to role play a scenario in which one was a manager and the other an ordinary worker. They were then asked to give their exact heights in a questionnaire, with those having played the role of manager supplying exaggerated figures.
Finally, the participants were conditioned in the same way as they were in the first experiment and then asked to choose an avatar in a second-life game that they thought best represented them. The more empowered volunteers consistently chose taller avatars.
“These findings may be a starting point for exploring the reciprocal relationship between the psychological and physical experiences of power,” Duguid says.
“An interesting direction for future research would be to determine whether associations between power and size extend to other self-perceptions and self-categorization.”
The new study is published in the current issue of the journal Psychological Science.