April 23, 2008
For Immediate Release

Contact: Katie Kline
(202) 293-9300 x133

On the High Horse: Why dominant individuals climb the proverbial ladder

In an attempt to grasp complex concepts, humans historically have tried to explain abstractions like time, power and dominance through symbols and metaphors. For example, a king’s status above serfs could be represented graphically as a triangle with the king at the top and serfs at the bottom.

While it is a common tendency to turn abstract concepts into visual depictions, it has proved to be an under-researched theory until recently when psychologists from North Dakota State University found a method to understand personality processes through the measurement of metaphoric representations.

Specifically, Sara Moeller, Michael Robinson and Darya Zabelina discovered that individuals high in dominance paid closer attention to stimuli in vertical positions than other participants. In other words, it appears that individuals high in dominance visualize the world through a sort of vertically-arranged ranking system.

“Simply stated, more dominant individuals think in dominance-related terms to a greater extent than do less dominant individuals,” the authors wrote. “That is, their thoughts more often involve power, powerlessness and relative dominance.”

The scientists supported this theory using a simple computer program that prompted participants to press the ‘p’ or ‘q’ key when it appeared on the screen. The letters were displayed on the right, left, top or bottom part of the screen. Those individuals who responded quickly when the letters were on the top or bottom of the screen also had high scores in dominance on a personality inventory. The other participants did not show a significant preference for the vertically-arranged letters.

The findings, which appear in the April 2008 issue of Psychological Science, a journal of the Association for Psychological Science, imply that a person’s level of dominance could be measured based on their biases favoring vertical representations of power, such as a king in a hierarchy.

Author Contact: Sara Moeller sara.moeller@ndsu.edu


Psychological Science is ranked among the top 10 general psychology journals for impact by the Institute for Scientific Information. For a copy of the article “Personality Dominance and Preferential Use of the Vertical Dimension of Space Evidence From Spatial Attention Paradigms” and access to other Psychological Science research findings, please contact Katie Kline at (202) 293-9300 x133 or kkline@psychologicalscience.org.