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A new study co-authored by Professor Adam Galinsky reveals that “powerless” individuals tend to inflate the value of monetary objects.

Adam Galinsky

'Powerless' people exhibit 'accentuation bias'

New research by Kellogg professors Adam Galinsky and Derek Rucker explores how social hierarchy alters the representation of monetary objects


6/11/2010 - In the face of defeat, rejection or embarrassment, some people take comfort in spending money.

But new research from the Kellogg School reveals that “powerless” feelings can affect how a person views and represents monetary objects.

“The Accentuation Bias: Money Literally Looms Larger (and Sometimes Smaller) to the Powerless,” a study by Adam Galinsky, the Morris and Alice Kaplan Professor of Ethics and Decision in Management, Derek Rucker, associate professor of marketing and David Dubois, a Kellogg doctoral candidate, examines 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 representation of those items is distorted based on whether there is a positive-value (bigger is better) or negative-value (smaller is better) relationship. For example, a powerless individual will tend to represent a desired house as larger, because the size-to-value relationship of the housing category is positive.

“A person’s sense of power is both an extremely pervasive feeling in everyday life and highly sensitive to changes in the environment,” Galinsky said. “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.”

To establish evidence of a power-influenced accentuation bias, the researchers conducted four experiments that explored how one’s place in a power hierarchy alters their representation of valued objects.

In the first three experiments, participants drew pictures of various objects associated with value, such as quarters or poker chips. Those participants categorized as “powerless” represented the objects larger than the “powerful” or “baseline” participants. This difference occurred even when participants were instructed to draw the objects to scale. The accentuation bias was also sensitive to value; for instance, “powerless” participants drew a same-sized poker chip larger when they were told it was worth $100 versus $1.

In the fourth experiment, when value was inversely associated with size (smaller objects were more valuable), subjects drew their corresponding objects as smaller.

“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,” Rucker explained. “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 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,” Rucker said. “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) journal.

To view the complete study or arrange an interview with Professors Galinsky or Rucker, please contact Aaron Mays.