Power Outage: A Loss of Social Power Distorts How Money is Represented

New research explores how one's place in the social hierarchy alters physical representation of monetary objects

Jun 07, 2010, 11:00 ET from Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University

EVANSTON, Ill., June 7 /PRNewswire/ -- Retail therapy can soothe the defeat of losing a major client, the rejection of not getting a promotion or even the embarrassment a high-powered executive might feel after receiving a speeding ticket. Spending money to uplift a damaged ego provides more than comfort; it restores the equilibrium of what lies at the foundation of Western culture – power and social hierarchy.

New research from Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University reveals that a sense of powerlessness, even if only temporary, can permeate into people's basic representation processes and affect how people physically represent monetary objects. The authors' findings have profound implications within all facets of Western culture, ranging from how a marketer should package goods to how policymakers can affect positive change.

"A person's sense of power is both an extremely pervasive feeling in everyday life but is also highly sensitive to changes in the environment," said Adam Galinsky, the Morris and Alice Kaplan Professor of Ethics and Decision in Management at the Kellogg School. "Our findings provide evidence that the relationship between size and value shapes an individual's physical representation of a given object that is associated with power and status. In particular, there is a prevailing association in Western culture that 'bigger' is always 'better,' which is why the powerless will often literally view money as physically larger."

In "The Accentuation Bias: Money Literally Looms Larger (and Sometimes Smaller) to the Powerless," Professor Galinsky and his colleagues, Associate Professor of Marketing Derek Rucker and Doctoral Candidate David Dubois, examine how one's position within a social hierarchy can alter their physical representation of valued objects. For the powerless, the subjective value of monetary items is intensified and the physical representations of those items are distorted based on whether there is a positive (bigger is better) or negative (smaller is better) value relationship. For example, based on their theorizing, a powerless individual will tend to represent a desired house as larger, because the size-to-value relationship of the housing category is positive.

To establish evidence of a power-influenced accentuation bias, four experiments were conducted that explored how one's place in a power hierarchy alters their representation of valued objects. In the first three experiments, powerless participants physically drew various objects associated with value, such as quarters or poker chips, as larger than powerful or baseline participants.

This difference in how objects were represented occurred despite individuals being instructed to accurately draw the objects to scale. Even more remarkably, this accentuation bias was incredibly sensitive to value for the powerless. So the exact same-sized poker chip was drawn as even larger when it was worth $100 than when it was worth $1 by the powerless.

However, in the fourth experiment when value was inversely associated with size (i.e. smaller objects were more valuable), subjects physically drew their corresponding objects as smaller. For example, cell phones and other nano-technologies are more valuable the smaller they are.

"Previous research had found that those low in socio-economic status tended to inflate the size of money, but our studies experimentally manipulated power to show that there is a causal link between power and how we represent the world of value," said Professor Rucker. "Our findings provide indispensable insight into the fact that many consumer choices don't just reflect the functional or utilitarian value but provide means for people to compensate for everyday threats to their power. Whether it's buying a high-status watch or having poker chips literally weigh more heavily on the mind, consumers seek to boost their standing when the power is threatened."

"More important," Rucker added, "are the implications these findings have for policymakers who can help to change the size-to-value relationship in order to motivate positive behavior for the common good. Altering the size-to-value relationships associated with such things as over-sized vehicles or fast food value meals might have a lasting effect on the environment as well as our health."

"The Accentuation Bias: Money Literally Looms Larger (and Sometimes Smaller) to the Powerless" will appear in a forthcoming issue of Social Psychological and Personality Science (SPPS).

MORE INFORMATION: To see the full study or to arrange an interview with Professors Galinsky or Rucker, please contact Aaron Mays or Emily Bendix at the contact information listed below.

For more information on the Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University, please visit http://www.kellogg.northwestern.edu.

Social Psychological and Personality Science (SPPS) is a new quarterly journal from the Association for Research in Personality (ARP), the European Association of Social Psychology (EASP), the Society of Experimental Social Psychology (SESP), the Society for Personality and Social Psychology (SPSP), and co-sponsored by the Asian Association of Social Psychology (AASP) and Society of Australasian Social Psychologists (SASP). The founding and sponsoring societies provide their membership with complimentary subscriptions, immediately giving the journal with a reach of over 7,000 scholars in social and personality psychology worldwide. http://spps.sagepub.com


Aaron Mays

Emily Bendix

Kellogg School of Management


Office: 847-491-2112

Office: 312-861-5214



SOURCE Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University