Contributor: Dana S. Dunn, PhD, author of Assessing Teaching and Learning in Psychology: Current and Future Perspectives, 1st Edition as well as ADJUST and Psychology Applied to Modern Life: Adjustment in the 21st Century, 10th Edition (with Wayne Weiten and Elizabeth Yost Hammer).


Part of psychology’s mission is to demystify and explain where or why people’s daily perceptions get them into trouble sometimes. Consider some well-known findings from social psychology on how we look. Attractive people, for example, get away with a lot more than less attractive people; we attribute all kinds of favorable qualities (e.g., wit, intelligence, skill) to those who are pretty or handsome.

Most people also look up to “leaders” (President Obama, Steve Jobs, Lady Gaga) and not just in the metaphorical sense. Children see their parents as a larger than life size wise—they look up to Mom and Dad, the folks who have (real) power over them. Bullies are often bigger kids who torment and tower over smaller ones. Tall people are often admired more than their shorter peers, so much so that extra height leads to extra salary and benefits; affluence often leads to influence in the form of more prestigious career opportunities. And now a recent set of studies by Duguid and Goncalo (2012), which appeared in the journal Psychological Science, adds a new twist: What if powerful people’s perceptions of their influence bias estimates of their own height? In other words, perhaps there is a physical experience linked to power, one that increases one’s beliefs about physical stature.

Three experiments revealed that the psychological experience of power leads people to see themselves as taller than objective reality indicates. In one study, participants in the high power post were asked to recall and write about incident when they had power over another persons (those in the low power condition remembered a situation where another had power over them, while control participants wrote about events from the previous day). Each person then estimated his or her height relative to a pole that was placed so as to be exactly 20 inches taller than the actual (already measured) height of the participant. Subsequent analyses revealed that high power participants judged the pole to be shorter relative to their own height than did those in the low power or control groups. Recalling power led to a living large bias where they feel themselves to be taller than they really are. Similar results were found in the two other studies.

So, people feel taller when they feel high and mighty—what does this mean for the daily lives of our students? What should we tell them about the association between power and perceptions of one’s height? The authors offer some interesting possibilities, including the fact that when people elevate themselves physically (sitting above others on a dais, speaking from a podium, flying first class), they are not only shaping observers’ beliefs regarding power and status, they are crafting their own self-views as powerful people. Implications abound. Perhaps, for example, when politicians or celebrities make self-aggrandizing comments that seem, well, over the top, they cannot help themselves? In our own lives, when those close to us behave temporarily out of character (acting too big for their proverbial britches) after a promotion or professional windfall, maybe their actions are rooted in a truly heightened sense of their own height? These suggestions should encourage students to consider when walking tall, talking big, and overestimating influence can get the powerful into trouble by creating angst on the part of the rest of us (the little people?). Based on the past year, anyway, the inferential leap from psychology lab to political party and congressional gridlock is not a big one.

Alternatively, manipulating people’s place in the spaces they inhabit may be turned to the good. If people who are shorter in stature feel (relatively) powerless, then finding opportunities for them to physically elevate themselves (a new seat or seat at the board room table) might provide some needed psychological benefits. Power offices need not be those corner window offices in skyscrapers—just occupying a space near the top of a building may boost confidence. Of course, such manipulation should not be pressed too far—if powerful people feel bigger than the average person, then they may also want a bigger space in which to live and influence others, indeed, they may feel more entitled to it than those who are powerless. Duguid and Goncalo’s intriguing results may well offer a new way of explaining why powerful despots often seek to expand their nation’s borders.

For the rest of us, reflecting on self-perceived power, height, and space should give us all pause. Thinking big need not mean acting big or, as my grandmother would say when someone became too self-absorbed, “Why don’t you quit talking through your hat?”