The power of height: Being above others protects against effects of social exclusion

Low angle shot of French man speakingBeing physically above others can buffer against some of the negative psychological consequences of social exclusion, according to research published online May 16 in Social Psychological and Personality Science.

“Our study investigated whether participants’ spatial position has an influence on their reactions to being ostracized,” Christiane Schoel of the University of Mannheim and her colleagues wrote in the study.

“Drawing on embodiment research, we hypothesized that excluded participants would react less aggressively toward the perpetrators when positioned above (vs. below), and thus ‘aloof’ from the situation.”

For their study, Schoel and her colleagues had 40 university students play the computer game Cyberball. The 3-player game was developed by psychologists to study social exclusion and ostracization.

The game simply involves passing a ball among the three players, who are arranged in a triangle. The participant is led to believe he or she is playing the game with two other humans, but in reality the game is pre-programmed. The participant is passed the ball only twice near the beginning of the game, and has to sit and watch the two other players pass the ball between themselves.

The game also includes a control condition, in which every player is passed the ball an equal number of times.

When participants were positioned above the two other players, Schoel and her colleagues found they exhibited less aggression after being excluded compared to those positioned below the two other players. Being positioned above also protected the participants’ feelings of control and mood.

“[O]ur findings show that a high vertical position in space mitigates aggressive retaliation against the perpetrators of social exclusion,” the researchers concluded. “On a more general level, one may conclude that being in a position of power helps to buffer the effect of ostracism on threatened control and negative mood, thereby reducing the risk of aggressive retaliation.”

The study was co-authored by Jennifer Eck of the University of Mannheim and Rainer Greifeneder of the University of Basel.