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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 chance events.

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.

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