The Naked Power: Understanding Nonverbal Communications of Power

In another study, participants judged the  power of groups whose labels were shown on the screen (Schubert, 2005). These judgments are very fast, taking less then a second. The labels were placed either on the top or at the bottom of the screen. Even though this vertical location was totally undiagnostic and unimportant for the task, it influenced judgment times: Participants took longer to recognize the powerful groups when they were at the bottom rather than at the top, while the opposite was true for powerless groups. Such an irrelevant vertical location also influences the magnitude of attributed  power (Meier, Hauser, Robinson, Kelland Friesen, & Schjeldahl, 2007; Schubert, 2005). Furthermore, schematizing a nonverbal cue in this way also works for size: When the labels of powerful groups are presented in a large font size, the groups are judged more quickly as powerful than when they are presented in a small font size, and the opposite is true for powerless groups (Schubert, Waldzus, & Seibt, 2007). These recent studies fit well with earlier findings demonstrating that actual bodily size, postures that make the body appear larger or smaller, and elevation of position are interpreted as  power (Judge & Cable, 2004; Schwartz, Tesser, & Powell, 1982). The larger, the more expanded, and the higher a person is, the more powerful we think that person is. However, these former studies only looked at judgments that were made deliberately and consciously.

Angular and Round Shapes

But size and height are by no means the only stimuli that convey  power when they are presented in a schematic fashion. In addition, angular and diagonal shapes such as a downward pointing triangle like a V seem to convey the meanings of potency in combination when compared to round shapes. Thus, a V is perceived to be more potent than an O. Moreover, diagonal shapes are seen as less positive than round shapes. Together, potency and negative evaluation result in the perception of threat (Aronoff, Barclay, & Stevenson, 1988; Aronoff, Woike, & Hyman, 1992).

Summary and Application

In sum, large sizes, elevation, and diagonality, as opposed to smallness, low positions and round shapes, seem to be interpreted and reacted upon as signalling  power. The cited research shows that these reactions can also occur automatically and without conscious awareness.

Most interestingly, these features can be part of nonverbal behaviour, but they also work when they are presented separated from the human body, for instance in furniture, fonts, diagrams, art, and architecture. For instance, in some elegant studies, Aronoff and his colleagues have illustrated how angular and circular shapes are contrasted in folk art from all over the world, such as masks, dances, and paintings, to convey conflict and threat. For instance, around the world, ritual masks that embody dangerous spirits or characters feature triangular shapes in the face (Aronoff, 2005). In other words, artists, architects, and advertisers very likely use these schemas to communicate  power of the people that they depict in their works, and to influence our perceptions of them. We, as the consumers and observers of their messages, easily pick up the cues, often probably without even noticing them consciously. This, however, does not mean that we have no control over the impression these messages have on us. If we know about the possible influence, if we have the time and mental resources to think about it, and if we care about the impression that is made on us, than we can correct the impression conveyed by the schematic cues of  power (Schubert, Waldzus, & Giessner, in press).

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