Healthy Living

The Influence Of Power Over Perception: Is It Corrupting or Liberating?

Boss
Image

We need not search farther than the politics or celebrity page of the news to know that excessive power can get to one's head. But is this necessarily a bad thing?

The Atlantic reports that recent scientific studies have attempted to delve into the strange psychological processes whereby our sense of power influences our perception of the world. In these experiments, researchers recorded the behavior of test subjects manipulated into weak or powerful states, paying particular attention to shifts in judgment and decision-making.

"When people feel powerful or feel powerless, it influences their perception of others," said Andy J. Yap — a postdoctoral student at MIT, who recently published a paper examining the way power-manipulated test subjects perceive the physiognomy of others. The results indicate that we judge power in others relative to our own. When we feel powerful, others suddenly appear weak.

Given the common mental equation of power and size, this phenomenon naturally puts tall people at an advantage over those of smaller stature. In fact, individuals above average height appear to reap tremendous social benefits, earning more money and reaching higher professional positions.

Power, it seems, is not simply a despotic attribute, but a complex, subconscious force capable of altering the way we interact with the world at large.

Could Power Be Considered Liberating?

According to Professor Joe Magee of New York University, this alteration is not necessarily corruptive. Instead, power should be understood as something liberating.

"What power does is that it liberates the true self to emerge," he told reporters. "More of us walk around with kinds of social norms; we work in groups that exert all pressures on us to conform. Once you get into a position of power, then you can be whoever you are."

For this reason, powerful people are less aware of contextual constraints, and tend to be much more decisive in their actions. In addition, they downplay risks, enjoy higher levels of testosterone, and display a knack for abstract thinking.

"People who are given more power in the lab, they see more choice," Magee said. "They see beyond what is objectively there, the amount of choice they have. More directions for what actions they can take. What it means to have power is to be free of the punishment that one could exert upon you for the thing you did."

Power And Dishonest Behavior

That being said, the mental removal of possible punishments inevitably paves way for hypocritical and dishonest behavior. An example is a recent survey where powerful people indicated that they had little tolerance for cheating. In spite of this assertion, many of them couldn't resist the urge later in the experiment, when they were given the opportunity to cheat and receive more compensation than the others. The researchers surmised that this paradoxical sense of entitlement is responsible for power structures in society.

"This means that people with power not only take what they want because they can do so unpunished, but also because they intuitively feel they are entitled to do so. Conversely, people who lack power not only fail to get what they need because they are disallowed to take it, but also because they intuitively feel they are not entitled to it," write the authors, led by Joris Lammers, a behavioral economist from Tilburt University in the Netherlands.

But power researchers maintain that the powerful are not necessarily bad people because of this. Ultimately, it all comes down to the individual herself.

"You put someone in an experiment, temporarily, in a high-powered role, and what you find is that people who say they have pro-social values, the more power they have, the more pro-social they are. The people who say they have more self-centered values tend to be more selfish the more power they have," said Pamela Smith of the University of California San Diego.

 

Sources: Lammers J, Stapel DA, Galinsky AD. Power increases hypocrisy: moralizing in reasoning, immorality in behavior. Psychol Sci. 2010. 

Yap AJ, Mason MF, Ames DR. The powerful size others down: The link between power and estimates of others' size. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology. 2013.

Loading...