The Naked Power: Understanding Nonverbal Communications of Power


However, we have to admit that there is no hard evidence that  power is communicated unconsciously this way – we can only suggest that this is true because the finding is unintuitive to most people. Yet, for other forms of  nonverbal communication, unconsciousness is shown more directly. The most impressive piece of evidence comes from a study conducted by Tiedens and Fragale (2003). In this study, participants talked to another person while sitting opposite each other. Unknown to the participants, the other person was actually a colleague of the experimenter who, depending on the experimental condition, either sat in an expanded pose (legs and arms outstretched), or in a constricted pose (legs closed, hands on their lap, and slouched). Results showed that the participants mostly displayed complementary behaviour – they constricted their own poses when confronting an expanded person, and they expanded when facing a constricted person. Furthermore, the following study showed that when participants were tricked into sitting either in an expanded or constricted way while facing the confederate, they felt better when they were allowed to take on the complementary posture. Importantly, all of this happened without the participants being aware of their responses and the source of their feelings. Yet, when being asked later, expanded confederates were indeed judged as more dominant than constricted confederates. Thus, participants understood and reacted to  nonverbal communication of  power through size without being consciously aware of neither the message nor their reaction.

Power Communication Goes Beyond the Body

The behaviours that we just discussed are all directly connected to how the human body nonverbally communicates  power. However,  nonverbal communication of  power is not restricted to expressions of the body alone, and in recent studies social psychologists have collected evidence showing that also these indirect communications take place unconsciously.

Height and Size

For instance, in an elegant study, Chen, Lee-Chai and Bargh (2001) had their participants sit either in a large professor's chair behind the professor's desk, or in a smaller guest chair across the desk. Sitting in the big chair activated cognitions of havingpower, while the small chair activated cognitions of being powerless. Thus, not only the size of one's body, but also the size of things associated with the own body communicates  power.
Our own studies showed also show that this abstraction of nonverbal cues from the body can go very far. For instance, in one experiment, participants formed an impression of a manager whose relations to his subordinates was described in text and visualised in an organization chart (Giessner & Schubert, 2007). One half of the participants saw an organization chart in which the vertical line connecting the box of the manager to the lower boxes of the subordinates was rather short, while the other saw an organization chart with a rather long vertical line. (The structure of the organization chart was the same in both conditions.) The vertical difference determined the perceived  power: The longer the line, the more  power participants attributed to the manager. Notably, the participants in these studies were students of the business and economic sciences, who should have known that the length of the vertical line has no formalized meaning whatsoever.

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