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People who feel powerless perceive tasks as more challenging

Teresa Tanoos's picture
Study finds those with sense of powerlessness find tasks more difficult.

If you’ve ever felt you’re carrying the weight of the world on your shoulders, or otherwise find yourself physically challenged by even the simplest of tasks, a new study says that it may have to do with you feeling a lack of social and personal power.

The study, published in the Journal of Experimental Psychology, reveals that those who feel personally and socially powerless have a different perspective of the world, which leads them to view even mundane tasks as physically overwhelming, compared with people who have a stronger sense of power.

The researchers of the study say it is the first to show that an individual’s sense of power can change how they perceive things – and how they perceive their social reputation can strongly influence their physical ability to change the world around them.

A person’s power, according to the study’s researchers from the University of Cambridge in the UK, is defined as "psychosocial construct relating to the control of resources". In other words, a person’s sense of power has an impact on their perception of objects, and their personal feelings about social reputation can change how they view their physical environment.

For the study, researchers conducted a series of tests on students from the University of Cambridge. The students did not now what the tests were about, nor what they were being tested for.

For one of the tests, the research team presented 145 students with a series of statements, asking the students to rank each one according to how much each statement applied to them. So if the statement was, “I can get people to listen to what I say,” each student would rank how strongly such statement was true of them. This test helped the researchers determine how each student perceived their own personal power in social relationships.

Prior to another test designed to determine each student’s mood, the students were asked to guess the weight of a variety of boxes after lifting them up.

As a result, the researchers discovered that the more a student felt lacking in social power, the more they overestimated the weight of the boxes. Interestingly, most of the students overestimated the weight of the boxes.

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For the mood testing experiment that followed, the research team asked 41 participants to sit in a chair in one of two positions: 1) a domineering position, with one elbow on the arm of the chair and the other on the desk next to them; or 2) a more constrictive position, with their shoulders slumped and their hands tucked under their legs.

The students were then asked to guess the weight of the boxes once again.

This second experiment found that those who sat in a domineering position were more accurate at guessing the weight of the boxes, but those who sat in a more constrictive position once again overestimated the boxes weight.

In the final experiment, 68 students were asked to recall a time when they felt they were either powerful or powerless, and to then guess the weight of the boxes again. This time, however, the students were told they were being tested for the effect of exercise on autobiographical memory.

Keep in mind that, up until the final experiment, the students were never told what any of the prior experiments were about or why they were being tested.

The results of the final test were therefore revealing, as the research team found that students who remembered feeling powerful during previous situations provided more accurate weights for the boxes, whereas the students who recalled situations in which they felt powerless, continued to overestimate the weights of the boxes.

Accordingly, the research team concluded that people who feel powerless perceive tasks as more physically difficult because such people tend to exercise caution in an effort to protect what limited resources they feel they have left.

The researchers explained that feeling powerless, whether because of some personality characteristic or a “disadvantaged social role”, causes individuals to perceive things differently because they presumably are “faced with challenges for which they lack the resources to overcome."

Using a quote from former Italian Prime Minister Giulio Andreotti, the researchers added that “power only tires those who do not possess it.”

SOURCE: The Influence of Social Power on Weight Perception, Eun Hee Lee, Simone Schnall, published in the Journal of Experimental Psychology, February 2014.