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Psychologists Say Power Does 4 Crazy Things to Your Mind

Image credit: House of Cards | Netflix

Who doesn’t desire power?

There’s a little Frank Underwood in all of us.

At the beginning of “House of Cards,” Kevin Spacey’s character explains why power beats money.

Money is the McMansion in Sarasota that starts falling apart after 10 years. Power is the old stone building that stands for centuries. I cannot respect someone who doesn’t see the difference.

But should you find and hold power — as Underwood so deliciously does — it’s going to do some really weird things to your perception of yourself and others.

Here’s what the research says:

1. If you feel powerful, you’re more inspired by yourself than anybody else.

According to a 2015 study led by Gerben A. Van Kleef at the University of Amsterdam, powerful people find themselves more inspiring than anybody else. In a study of 140 undergraduates, he found that people who agreed highly to statements like “I can get others to do what I want” were more inspired by talking about their own life-changing experiences than hearing other people discuss theirs.

To Research Digest blogger Alex Fradera, it’s indicative of self-sufficiency.

“As a matter of course, powerful people don’t expect others to fulfill their needs, and may therefore find it difficult to consider anyone else a worthy source of inspiration,” he writes. “It’s a little like a child for whom no one in the playground is up to scratch, so they become their own best friend.”

2. If you feel powerful, you’re the first to act.

In a 2003 study led by Columbia University psychologist Adam Galinsky, people who felt more powerful than their peers were more likely to take a card in a game of blackjack, fix an annoying fan in a room, and take action in social dilemmas. A 2007 study coauthored by Galinsky added to that theme, finding that powerful people are more likely to act first in a negotiation.

In 2012, the University of Texas’ Jennifer A. Whitson found an explanation as to why: Powerful people are less likely to perceive — and remember — constraints to their goals.

It’s like how eagles and alligators evolved to have their eyes close together.

“The vision of predators is fixated on their object of pursuit — their prey — leaving little visual room for unexpected danger or potential threats in their surroundings,” she and her authors write. “This directed focus allows them to pounce into action to secure their meal.”

Same for CEOs.

3. If you feel powerful, you’re more likely to cheat.

According to a 2011 study led by Joris Lammers at Tilburg University in the Netherlands, it’s that powerful people are more likely to cheat.

His team surveyed 1,561 professionals, asking how high up in their organizations they were and their history or interest in cheating.

“Results showed that elevated power is positively associated with infidelity because power increases confidence in the ability to attract partners,” they wrote. “This association was found for both actual infidelity and intentions to engage in infidelity in the future.”

Gender didn’t matter.

Powerful women were just as likely to have or pursue affairs as powerful men. This goes against a commonly held assumption about cheating. It’s not that men are inherently more likely to cheat than women; it’s just that men are more likely to hold powerful positions.

“As a social psychologist, I believe that the situation is everything and that the situation or instance is often stronger than the individual,” Lammers said in a statement. “As more and more women are in greater positions of power and are considered equal to men, then familiar assumptions about their behavior may also change.”

4. If you feel powerful, you feel distant from other people.

According to Joe Magee at New York University and Pamela Smith at the University of California at San Diego, powerful people feel more socially distant than non-powerful people.

It happens for a few reasons:

  1. People become close to one another when they are “symmetrically dependent” on one another and have repeated interactions, Magee and Smith say. You and your boss aren’t symmetrically dependent; you depend on her approval more than she does yours. But you and the other people on her team are symmetrical, so you’re likely to become close over time.

  2. Research indicates that powerful people don’t need to associate with others in the same way.

  3. Powerful people have to think more abstractly than everybody else. They’re concerned with meeting goals more than developing relationships.

So the isolation is a result of the social situation that power puts you in — and the need to get things done.

It works for Mr. Underwood.


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