The Power Trip - Enemy of Clear Thinking
In life and in fiction we see power "going to the head"
of a leader or other person in a position of authority over others.
We've all watched this happen in our experience. Some of the
most common effects are feelings of superiority and the poor
treatment of subordinates.
We also see the more dangerous aspects of power trips, such
as when those in power make mistakes on a large scale due to
what we might consider their arrogance. The heads of large corporations
ignore common sense or advice and make big moves that prove disastrous,
for example. The underestimating of the costs of wars by political
and military leaders is another example.
How much does power really affect our thinking though? It's
a question that recent research has looked at. More specifically,
researchers have asked if power creates illusions of control.
Does it cause the holder to overestimate his or her ability to
control or affect outcomes? The answer seems to be a definite
yes. To some extent we actually lose our ability to realistically
assess matters and our ability to control events when we are
put in a position of power.
The most relevant recent study is one done by Nathanael Fast
and Deborah Gruenfeld at Stanford Graduate School of Business,
Niro Sivanathan at the London Business School and Adam Galinsky
at the Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University.
They found repeatedly that power can cause people to think they
have more personal control than they actually have. I take this
to mean effective thinking is typically compromised by power.
Galinksy says their experiments explored "the relationship
between power and illusory control - the belief that one has
the ability to influence outcomes that are largely determined
by chance." To create positions of power subjects were randomly
assigned to be in either manager or subordinate roles. Those
in power not only overestimated the control they had, but even
routinely thought they could control things that were clearly
determined by chance. The researchers noted that this led to
"unrealistic optimism and inflated self-esteem."
In one experiment, for example, those with power were rewarded
for predicting the outcome when they rolled a pair of dice. They
were then asked if they would allow someone else to roll for
them or if they preferred to do it themselves. 100% decided to
keep making their own rolls, and researchers took this to indicate
a belief that they could influence the outcome of the rolls by
doing it themselves. There was no evidence for that, of course,
and those who were in positions classified as either "neutral"
or "low power" chose to roll the dice themselves less
than 70% of the time.
The results of this and other experiments were reported in
the journal Psychological Science. The authors suggest that to
some extent this illusion of control can lead to the achievement
of goals that would otherwise be seen as too difficult or impossible.
In other words, our tendency to go on a power trip and have the
illusion of greater control might have some value.
On the other hand they also noted that this illusory control
can lead to losses of power because of the poor decision making
that often results. They end with the warning, "the illusion
of personal control might be one of the ways in which power often
leads to its own demise." Anyone who reads history can see
the evidence for that. Anyone who pays attention to current events
might also see illusions of control held by those in power as
one of the motivating factors behind some actions in Washington.
Enough said about that. I don't want to make this into a political
issue. The more important point in the context of this website
is to consider what this means for our own minds and our ability
to think clearly. An all-out power trip is not the only problem
here. It seems from the research that even otherwise fair and
humble people are at risk when they gain power. With power we
start to feel a confidence in our abilities that may not be justified,
and it certainly isn't justified when we think we can control
Keep this in mind when you make a few good bets in the stock
market or get a promotion at work, or hire your first employees,
or gain power in any of the many ways possible. Watch yourself
to see if you are starting to believe you can control more than
you really can. Question and challenge any feelings or thoughts
of superiority or enhanced abilities that appear in your mind.
Attachment to power and the feelings it generates can cause a
mental trip that is an enemy of clear thinking.