What causes psychological power problems

Psychology: what power does to us

Priming: A researcher's favorite with pitfalls

Scientists often use what is known as priming to study the consequences of power. In doing so, they try to activate certain memory contents in test subjects, ideally so subtly that they do not notice anything. For example, when someone is asked to think of an episode in their life in which they had a great deal of power over someone, it should bring to mind implicit concepts of power. The assumption is that the test subjects will behave accordingly in the further course of the experiment. Priming is simple and inexpensive, but it also has methodological weaknesses: although memory content is certainly activated, the researchers can hardly control what exactly.

To what extent these results can also be transferred to men is still unclear. Regardless of gender, it is true that above all people with a high degree of extraversion and low level of neuroticism rise, i.e. those with prosocial personality traits. However, as some studies have shown, women are punished more strongly than their male counterparts for dominant behavior.

For example, psychologists from Yale University in New Haven asked subjects to read the websites of two alleged senators and then decide which of the two candidates they would vote for. The descriptions were identical, only the gender of the politicians varied. In addition, the text sometimes contained the note that the candidate was one of the most ambitious politicians in the entire state and had always had a strong "will to power". The additional information led to the fact that the participants voted for those senators who were supposedly particularly out for power less often than male Senate members, regardless of their striving for power.

Most research results in social psychology are not exactly flattering for bosses: When people gain power, they overestimate their abilities more, take higher risks, think in stereotypes and ignore foreign perspectives more often than people who feel powerless. The social psychologist Keltner speaks of a "paradox of power". "The very skills that lead to someone becoming a leader are apparently lost after the position of power has been held for a while," he says.

On the other hand, influential people seem to be better at mastering certain intellectual tasks - especially when it comes to not getting lost in details and separating the "wheat from the chaff". A gain in authority therefore has a lasting effect on how we think and act. How exactly, tries to explain the "construal level theory" (theory of the levels of abstraction). At its heart is what is known as psychological distance. Behind this is the idea that objects, people or events appear differently close to us - depending on spatial and temporal distance or personal connection. According to the theory, we think more concretely about what is close, but abstractly about distant things. Neither of the two thinking styles is generally better or worse than the other, it depends on the situation.

What does all of this have to do with power? People in high positions hardly have to grapple with details; instead, it is often about the big picture: a block of shares has to be sold, a branch has to be closed, a district has to be modernized. In addition, they have greater freedom of action and are more independent of their fellow human beings. According to the theory, managers should therefore also think more abstractly.

The very skills that lead to someone becoming a leader are apparently lost after the position of power has been held for a while

The social psychologist Pamela Smith from the University of California at San Diego has tested this assumption in several experiments. Just like Adam Galinsky in his ventilator study, she used a priming technique to induce feelings of power or powerlessness in her test subjects. Then you should memorize a number of terms and then reproduce them. A classic memory test with a twist: All words (such as curtain, frame and pane) were closely related to a term that did not occur itself (window). Some of the test subjects fell for the trick and named the missing word anyway. However, those who had previously been suggested a powerful situation made the mistake more often. Apparently they were trying to get the gist of it instead of dwell on details - which in this case was a bad tactic.