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Study: Feeling Powerless Makes Physical Tasks Harder

  • Jessica Berman

People who feel that they lack social power find physical tasks more difficult to perform. That is according to a new study, which researchers say is the first to demonstrate that people who believe they are socially powerless feel the weight of the world.

The people in the study were not clinically depressed, according to lead researcher Eun Hee Lee, in the psychology department at Britain's University of Cambridge. Depressed individuals lack motivation and may feel physically weak.

Lee said the study she led was based on the participants’ self-assessments of power -- in other words, where they felt they ranked in the social order compared to people they perceived as being powerful and in control.

“We defined being powerful as the one who has control over their own and others’ resources; whereas being powerless as being the ones who [don’t] have their control over theirs and others' resources, and also have to [be] dependent to gain the resources that they need.”

Powerless individuals, according to Lee, live in a constant state of uncertainty.

In the study, researchers asked participants a series of questions to determine their assessment of their social status, such as “I can get people to listen to what I say.” Then, they were asked to lift a number of boxes and guess their weight. The more powerless a person felt, the more they overestimated how much the boxes weighed.

In a second test, researchers manipulated the sense of power by having participants sit in poses that were either domineering -- with one elbow on the arm of chair, or restrictive -- putting their hands under their thighs. Those in the submissive positions thought the boxes weighed more than they did. Those who sat in the more powerful pose more accurately estimated the weight.

Finally, a number of participants were asked to recall an experience in which they felt either powerful or powerless. Those who focused on a powerful vision most accurately guessed the weight of several boxes. Those who remembered negative experiences repeatedly overestimated how heavy the boxes were.

Lee believes feelings of powerlessness in humans might have evolved from prehistoric times as an adaptive mechanism to keep early man from exhausting limited resources. Today, however, she said these feelings might be a hindrance on the job.

“It might mean we are kind of preventing ourselves automatically putting 100 percent effort into the work without us realizing [it], which could be damaging.”

An article on the effects of self-perceptions of powerlessness is published in the Journal of Experimental Biology.
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