"It’s beneath me": How dominant personalities are biased towards the vertical

People who are more dominant are quicker at processing information that appears in the vertical dimension of space, psychologists have found. The result comes from an expanding field of psychology looking at the ways that personality and culture can affect how we interact with the world.

Sara Moeller and colleagues asked dozens of students to identify as fast and as accurately as possible whether a letter on a computer screen was a “p” or a “q”. On each trial, the letter always appeared randomly in one of four locations: to the left, right, above or below the screen mid-point. The test was repeated hundreds of times, with the students’ attention always brought back to the centre of the screen after each letter presentation.

Students with more dominant personalities (judged by their agreement with statements like “I impose my will on others”) were far quicker at identifying letters that appeared above or below the midpoint than would be expected based on their speed at identifying letters appearing to the left or right. By contrast, speed of response to the horizontal letters was not associated with personality dominance.

A second experiment replicated the finding with more students, a different measure of personality dominance and with the letters’ positioning following a predictable rather than a random pattern.

Our language is littered with dominance metaphors that refer to the vertical dimension: we speak of “upper” classes and of people “high” in authority. Past research has shown that priming participants to think of verticality speeds their response to stimuli that are related to dominance in some way. According to Moeller and her co-workers, the new finding goes a step further by showing that having a dominant personality can actually bias people towards the vertical dimension.

Blogging on Peer-Reviewed ResearchMoeller, S.K., Robinson, M.D., Zabelina, D.L. (2008). Personality Dominance and Preferential Use of the Vertical Dimension of Space: Evidence From Spatial Attention Paradigms. Psychological Science, 19(4), 355-361. DOI: 10.1111/j.1467-9280.2008.02093.x

Post written by Christian Jarrett (@psych_writer) for the BPS Research Digest.

One thought on “"It’s beneath me": How dominant personalities are biased towards the vertical”

  1. I wonder whether the results would be the same in countries where writing is traditionally vertical (e.g., from top to down, like in Taiwan).In principle, I’d like to check the results also for countries in which authority and power do not have linguistic associations with the vertical dimension, but I don’t know of any.


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