Feeling powerless 'makes objects seem heavier'

A man carries a parcel from a house in Leicester. Photo: REUTERS/Darren Staples

Having the weight of the world on your shoulders appears to be more than a figure of speech after research claims that the more socially powerless a person feels, the heavier an object seems to be.

Scientists tested the theory by asking volunteers to lift boxes of varying weights and guess how heavy they were.

Those who felt they lacked control in their lives perceived the boxes to be heavier than those with a keen sense of personal power.

Although many psychological studies have been conducted on power, not much was known about how power influences actual perceptual experiences in everyday life.

This research demonstrates that people's social role, as indicated by a sense of social power, or a lack thereof, can change the way they see the physical environment.

– Eun Hee Lee, from Cambridge University

Over-estimating the weight of an object may come from our evolutionary past to help us cope with depleted resources, the team believes.

A cautious approach to a world with famine or a lack of shelter-building material would have been advantageous and experiencing weight in an exaggerated fashion may be an instinctive desire to conserve resources, researchers said.

Three separate studies were conducted, all disguised by cover stories so that participants were unaware of what was being tested.

In one experiment, volunteers' sense of power in social relationships was measured, with the findings showing that as feelings of social power fell, the guessed weights of the boxes increased.

Another test, saw participants recall an experience in which they had felt either powerful or powerless, then repeatedly estimate the weights of various boxes.

The final experiment saw volunteers put in either an expansive, domineering, arms-spread position, or a more constricted one with hands tucked under thighs and shoulders dropped.

Again, feeling powerful was associated with greater accuracy. Volunteers who took up the "powerful" pose guessed the weight of the boxes correctly while those in the "submissive" pose imagined heavier weights.

Power plays a role when it is present in a given moment, but also when it comes to people's personality. We find that personality, which determines how people interact with the social world, also shapes how people interact with the physical world.

– Eun Hee Lee, from Cambridge University