Jan. 12, 2012 at 11:51 AM ET
In June 2010, the Swedish-born Chairman of BP Carl-Henric Svanberg touched off a firestorm of controversy with his remarks about his company's reaction to the Gulf oil spill.
"... we care about the small people. I hear comments sometimes that large oil companies are greedy companies or don't care. But that is not the case in BP. We care about the small people."
The twice used reference to "small people" hit a raw nerve with residents of the Gulf in the wake of the manmade disaster. Svanberg was quickly forced to apologize and admit "he spoke clumsily."
From that condescending comment grew the germ for a recently published paper about whether powerful people misperceive their height compared to others.
The study, published in Psychological Science, looked at whether the psychological perception of power may cause people to feel taller than they truly are.
In one experiment, researchers first measured the height of 68 people. One-third of the people were then asked to write about a time when they had power over someone else; another third recalled a time when someone else had power over them; and a control group recalled what happened to them the day before.
Then all the volunteers were asked to estimate their size in relation to a pole that was set at 20 inches taller than their true height.
Men and women who had recalled a high-power incident tended to judge the pole to be shorter than their own height compared to those recalling a low-power situation.
"People perceived themselves as taller when they occupied a more powerful position," write the researchers.
In two other experiments involving nearly 200 volunteers, power was also shown to affect a person's judgments of their own stature.
The study suggests that people not only feel powerful in their minds, they also physically experience it in their bodies by overestimating their own height.
"Having power not only influences how others view individuals but it also influences how individuals view themselves physically," says study author Michelle Duguid, Ph.D. She is an assistant professor of organizational behavior at Washington University in St. Louis.
The frequent metaphoric use of height to connote power in terms such as "big man on campus" and "people look up to them," may achieve a physical reality of its own, suggests Duguid.
Other studies have found that taller people are more likely to gain power: They typically earn higher salaries, have higher-status jobs, are often in leadership positions, and tend to win presidential elections.
But this is the first study to show that the powerful may actually feel taller than a measurement would indicate.
The researchers conclude that their results suggest why the beleaguered chairman of BP "may have inadvertently provided a window into the physical experience of power."
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