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Can Social Clout Change How Much Something Weighs?

The powerless may carry even heavier loads than we thought.
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(Photo: Lalupa/Wikimedia Commons)

(Photo: Lalupa/Wikimedia Commons)

Every evening, a high-powered financial executive transports several 10-pound bags of money from a vault buried beneath his mansion in the hills out to his well-manicured lawn, just so he can admire them. Around the same time, a poorly compensated waiter unloads several 10-pound bags of rice from a delivery van and carries them into the restaurant's kitchen, just so he can keep his job.

Both men are of equal weight, stature, and fitness; both handle the same number of bags. If you asked them to estimate how heavy the bags were, though, the waiter and the executive might have very different answers.

Though the powerful among us might not perceive objects as heavy, they are also very often carrying the lightest load.

New research published this week in the Journal of Experimental Psychology suggests that the "psychosocial construct" of power can actually influence people's perception of the physical world, or, more specifically, how much things weigh. A series of experiments conducted by University of Cambridge psychologists consistently indicated that the powerless are more likely than the powerful to rate objects as heavier.

The researchers conclude that this type of behavior is sensible from an evolutionary perspective. "This may be adaptive because people deprived of power will likely be unable to attain enough resources for difficult actions ahead," the researchers write. "Consequently, it would be advantageous for powerless individuals to experience perceptual attributes of the world around them in an exaggerated fashion, so further activities would be discouraged with the ultimate goal of preserving one’s existing resources."

In each of the three tests the scientists conducted, the participants were asked to estimate how heavy cardboard boxes of varying weights were. In the first case, people who had lower self-reported senses of power on a questionnaire were more likely to provide higher weight estimates. In the second test, those who were put in a powerless posturing position ("a constricted posture, placing hands under their thighs, with shoulders dropped and legs placed together") provided "inflated estimates" throughout the experiment, while those who were put into a powerful posturing position ("an expansive posture, placing one arm on the armrest of the chair and the other arm on the desk nearby while crossing their legs such that the ankle of one leg rested on the thigh of the other leg") corrected their initial overestimates. In the third experiment, the people that were asked to reflect on experiences when "someone else had power over them" also provided overestimates when compared to those who did not.

Though the powerful among us might not perceive objects as heavy, they are also very often carrying the lightest load. "The comment made by the former Italian prime minister Giulio Andreotti, that power only tires those who do not possess it, therefore is no longer an unsubstantiated conjecture: Our data suggest that the world of the powerless is indeed full of heavy burdens," the researchers conclude.