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Feeling socially 'powerless' makes physical tasks heavier

IANS  |  London 

Feeling powerless in this mighty world? You may find a task to be more physically challenging than those with a greater sense of personal and social power.

"The research demonstrates that people's social role, as indicated by a sense of social power or a lack of it can change the way they see the physical environment," said Eun Hee Lee, a researcher working with Simone Schnall at University of Cambridge's department of psychology.

He carried out a series of tests in which volunteers were surreptitiously surveyed about their own social power, then asked to lift boxes of varying weights and guess how heavy they were.

Those who felt powerless consistently perceived the weight of the boxes as much heavier than those who felt more powerful!

To measure a person's sense of their own social power, the researchers conducted separate studies.

In the first, 145 participants were asked to rank how strongly they felt a series of statements applied to them - such as 'I can get people to listen to what I say' - to measure beliefs about their power in social relationships.

They were then tasked with lifting a number of boxes and guessing the weight, before taking a final test to gauge their mood.

Researchers found that the lower a person's feelings of social power, the more they thought the boxes weighed.

In the second test, the researchers manipulated the sense of power by asking 41 participants to sit in either a domineering position or a more constricting one, with hands tucked under thighs and shoulders dropped.

Prior to manipulation, most participants overestimated the weight; after manipulation, those who sat in the more powerful pose gave more accurate estimates, while those in the submissive condition continued to imagine heavier weight, said the study.

The researchers say this overestimation of weight may be an adaptive strategy when faced with a lack of resources.

When in a position of powerlessness, it would be 'advantageous' to have an overly cautious approach to the world in order to preserve your existing limited resources.

This research demonstrates that people's social role, as indicated by a sense of social power, or a lack therefore, can change the way they see the physical environment, said the study, published in the Journal of Experimental Psychology.

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First Published: Tue, February 04 2014. 13:14 IST