People who feel powerful tend to overestimate their own height, according to a January 2012 paper in the journal Psychological Science.
That is, they feel physically larger than they actually are.
After the huge 2010 oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, Carl-Henric Svanberg, the chairman of BP, referred to the victims of the spill as the “small people.” He explained it as awkward word choice by a non-native speaker of English. But two researchers, Jack A. Goncalo of Cornell University and Michelle M. Duguid of Washington University, wondered if there was something real behind it. Goncalo said:
Maybe there’s a physical experience that goes along with being powerful. For people who are less powerful, maybe other people and objects loom larger, and for the powerful everything else just seems smaller.
Plenty of research has shown that taller people are more likely to acquire power; taller people make more money, on average, and are more likely to be promoted. But our research is the first to show the reverse may also be true power also makes people feel taller.
In one experiment, subjects came to the lab in pairs. First they had their heights measured. Then they were given a leadership aptitude test and told that, based on their feedback, they would each be assigned to play the role of the manager or the employee. They were given fake feedback and randomly assigned a role. Afterwards, each person filled out a questionnaire with personal information, including eye color and height. People who had been told they would be the manager, with complete control over the work process and power to evaluate the employee, said they were taller than the actual measurement. The subject who had been told they would be the employee gave a height that was more or less the same as their real height.
Other experiments found similar results— that people who feel powerful overestimate their height. So maybe Carl-Henric Svanberg really did feel taller than the people affected by the Gulf oil spill. The results may also explain why diminutive leaders might still behave like people twice their height—they actually feel taller. Goncalo said:
Given that height is associated with power, raising your height may make you feel powerful.
Goncalo said that might help explain the continuing popularity of high heels and offices on the top floor.
Bottom line: A January 2012 paper in the journal Psychological Science suggests that people who feel powerful tend to overestimate their own height.
Eleanor Imster has helped write and edit EarthSky since 1995. She was an integral part of the award-winning EarthSky radio series almost since it began until it ended in 2013. Today, as Lead Editor at EarthSky.org, she helps present the science and nature stories and photos you enjoy. She also serves as one of the voices of EarthSky on social media platforms including Facebook, Twitter and G+. She and her husband live in Tennessee and have two grown sons.