Finally deciding to dismantle the Christmas decorations, you scale a ladder bound for the second-story gutter. You’ve never done this before — you’re deathly afraid of heights, in fact — but you’re feeling charitable. Finishing your ascent you realize just how high up you are. Twenty feet? Thirty? The ceilings couldn’t be that high, you think. But it sure seems like a long way down, and right now that’s all that matters.

Whether it’s elation or despair, glee or envy, emotions have the power to transform how we view certain aspects of our lives. Unbridled jealousy may spur the purchase of an expensive (and unnecessary) handbag. The flutter of a budding romance may sour dieting’s appeal, lest we appear uptight or cheap. The upshot is that how we see the world is fundamentally shaped by how we react to it, and vice versa, and it’s these emotions — feeling powerless, exhausted, afraid — that can ultimately send us on one path in life or another.

Power Holds The Weight Of The World

Someone snatched your promotion out from under you. It’s been three months and still no signs your diet is paying off. You just moved to a foreign city, and you don’t speak a lick of the native tongue.

Feeling powerless — that is, being unable to control your circumstances with your given resources — doesn’t only demotivate future action; it could be a hindrance once you finally take that action. A new study from the University of Cambridge has shown that people who felt powerless reported objects weighing more than they actually did. Those who felt some degree of power were much better predictors of the objects’ true weight.

“This research demonstrates that people’s social role, as indicated by a sense of social power, or a lack therefore, can change the way they see the physical environment,” said lead researcher and postdoctoral candidate, Eun Hee Lee, in a statement.

The team found through three related experiments that a range of priming factors led people to experience the objects — in this case, boxes — as heavier than they really were. Lee and her co-researcher, Dr. Simone Schnall, observed the phenomenon after asking baseline questions about their feelings of power, then again after changing subjects’ posture, and a final time simply by asking them to recall a memory in which they felt powerless. All three scenarios yielded the same result: conceptions of weakness translated to manifestations of it.

“Power plays a role when it is present in a given moment, but also when it comes to people’s personality,” Lee said. “We find that personality, which determines how people interact with the social world, also shapes how people interact with the physical world.”

A Long(er) Way Down

You’re back on the ladder. Maybe you’ve been stuck up there for hours, frozen in the February cold in more ways than one. You don’t know when you’ll finally muster the courage to begin your descent, because the idea of leaving your tightfisted perch seems akin to suicide. But you know you’re a ways up, and according to recent research, you shouldn’t try to guess the exact height because you’re probably way off.

In 2009, researchers from the University of Virginia and the University of Utah found that people who were more afraid of heights were less able to correctly judge the height of a particular building. Atop a two-story balcony, participants who self-identified as having a fear of heights overestimated the length of their imagined plummet by 31 percent. These findings upheld prior research, such as a 1992 study that found acrophobes tend to overestimate the length and height of bridges.

Nearly everyone has a fear of heights to some extent, experts argue. Misjudging the height of a building or, in more perilous situations, a crumbling cliff, prepares the brain for imminent danger. Self-preservation kicks in and tries to mobilize the body by overcompensating for something that, on the ground, is plainly safer. We feel afraid, so we miscalculate to accelerate the getaway process.

At least, that’s what some experts believe. Others believe the relationship works the other way around: We miscalculate the distance and react to that visual information — an otherwise reasonable response given the height. "An important component of acrophobia appears to be that [acrophobics] are perceiving something different in the first place" and reacting normally, Russell Jackson, cognitive psychologist at California State University in San Marcos and leader of 2009 study, told New Scientist.

In either case, the fear tells the same story. When we’re afraid of heights, we do a poor job of judging distance. Our brains want us to escape, so they fudge the numbers as persuasion. And as it turns out, vertical distances aren’t the only orientations we get wrong.

Some Tiresome Geometry

Hikers may be all too familiar with the sweet relief of a challenging hill, only to encounter an even steeper climb — all this with 40 lbs. of gear on your back. If it’s the slope that’s eating at you, research suggests maybe you should consider lightening your load, because a growing body of evidence has shown that the effort it takes to climb can make that climb seem steeper and longer.

Similar to the first two cases, this effect stems from the brain’s inability to tease out the physical demands of climbing from the perceptual understandings of distance and hill grade. The climb wears you out, fatiguing you and perhaps compelling you to quit, or at least take a break. But it’s this physical and emotional exhaustion that, like a feeling of powerlessness, enlarges the difficulty of the given task. Basically, when resources are limited, it’s in your body’s interest to take an overly cautious view of just how bad things have gotten in order to preserve those resources.

"The visually specified layout of the environment is modulated in perception in ways that promote effective, efficient, and safe behavior,” wrote Professor Dennis Proffitt, author of a 2006 study into the phenomenon. What we see in the world isn’t just determined by visual data received by our eyes, “but also by one's purposes, physiological state, and emotions.” In this, perceptions are “embodied,” meaning they are manifested in the real world through actions — “they relate body and goals to the opportunities and costs of acting in the environment.”

That’s Close Enough, Thank You

And if staying away from creepy strangers or frightening spiders isn’t a goal to act on in the environment, little else is. A 2012 study found that people severely underestimated the distance between themselves and a threatening object or person than when the object across from them was non-threatening. New York University researchers arrived at the result via two distinct, but related, experiments — ultimately demonstrating the extent to which the brain will go when it’s confronted with a really good reason to (ahem) get the hell out of there.

First, the team recruited 101 college students to participate in a study under the guise that researchers were testing about notions of “island life.” When subjects arrived, they were told to stand 156 inches away from a live tarantula, which the team had placed on a table. Students reported how frightened or threatened they were before estimating how far away they were from the spider. The subjects (as you may have expected by now) repeatedly saw the spider as being much closer when they felt more threatened.

But researchers wanted to take the study a step further. In order to pinpoint the threat’s actual effect, they asked 48 female students to give their impressions of certain depictions of men. First they met a male actor posing as a student. Then they watched one of three videos. The first showed a threatening male, who professed his love for guns and described his pent-up aggression. Another group watched a video of a man talking about urinating in customers’ sodas and spitting in their food while working at a fast food restaurant. The third group watched a neutral video of a male student talking about his classes for the upcoming semester.

Afterward, the subjects met the male student once again and were seated exactly 132 inches from him. While the neutral and disgusted condition both showed similar margins of error — finding him 73.9 cm and 78.4 cm farther away, respectively — the threatening condition showed people thought he was, in fact, 55 cm closer than in actuality.

"Although fear and disgust are both negative and intense emotions, they differ in the amount of immediate action they call for," the researchers noted. "Both fear and disgust may be associated with avoidance tendencies, but fear typically necessitates active mobilization to withdraw from or dispel potential threats, whereas disgust does not."

In other words, when you’re faced with a fearsome, humbling, or otherwise difficult challenge and need to overcome it, keep in mind how your body responds. And a word to the wise: Even if you have a knack for judging height, if you’re up on a ladder and want to stay calm, your best bet is following the sage advice. Just don’t look down.

Source: Lee E, Schnall S. The Influence of Social Power on Weight Perception. Journal of Experimental Psychology. 2014.