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Formidable: Separating the effects of power from size, strength, and sex

Grant Winners

  • Valerie Starratt, Ph.D. – College of Psychology
  • Austin Matthies – College of Psychology


  • Karen Grosby, Ed.D. – College of Psychology


Award Winners Most people would not be surprised to learn that the social order of our closest non-human primates is determined by size and strength. The biggest and the strongest are the ones who hold the most social power and have the greatest influence over social interactions. This might be expected, given that primate leaders typically have to engage in physical confrontation, both to fend off rivals and maintain order within the group. But what about humans? In the polite civil society of the modern post-industrial world, physical confrontation is rare, particularly for individuals holding formal leadership positions, such as presidents, CEOs, and office managers. Nonetheless, much like our primate cousins, there is a strong positive relationship between physical size and social power. Is this because taller and stronger people also just happen to be smarter and more skilled? Or is there something about being more physically formidable that affords those individuals greater social power, even in circumstances where size and strength are ostensibly irrelevant? The proposed study addresses this question by examining whether allowing an individual to express physical power in a way that is independent of his/her inherent size and strength, subsequently increases that person's perceptions of their own social power and influence. This manipulation uses a commercially available biotechnological device that allows someone to temporarily, and harmlessly, exercise physical control over another person's body. Analyses (two-way mixed-model ANOVA) will examine the extent to which experiencing physical power over another person will cause a subsequent change in perception of one's own social power and influence. Additionally, multiple regression analyses will be used to predict the extent to which an individual's perception of their own social power and influence changes over and above what would be expected given the manipulation. Based upon theory, it is predicted that a physically formidable person will experience less change in perceptions of power compared to a less physically formidable person who has never before experienced the opportunity to be physically dominant. Experimentally confirming the existence of a vestigial association between physical prowess and social power in humans could ultimately shed light on a wide range of complex behavior and social inequities, from the gender pay gap to mansplaining. In short, findings from this study have the potential to shed light on the question of whether men may govern the social landscape simply because they're bigger and stronger, even if it's irrelevant.
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