Power Makes You More Dismissive

An excellent essay by Jonah Lehrer describes a pair of studies I didn’t know about:

In a recent study led by Richard Petty, a psychologist at Ohio State, undergraduates role-played a scenario between a boss and an underling. Then the students were exposed to a fake advertisement for a mobile phone. Some of the ads featured strong arguments for buying the phone, such as its long-lasting battery, while other ads featured weak or nonsensical arguments. Interestingly, students that pretended to be the boss were far less sensitive to the quality of the argument. It’s as if it didn’t even matter what the ad said—their minds had already been made up.

. . . Instead of analyzing the strength of the argument, those with authority focus on whether or not the argument confirms what they already believe. If it doesn’t, then the facts are conveniently ignored.

Deborah Gruenfeld, a psychologist at the Stanford Business School, demonstrated a similar principle by analyzing more than 1,000 decisions handed down by the United States Supreme Court between 1953 and 1993. She found that, as justices gained power on the court, or became part of a majority coalition, their written opinions tended to become less complex and nuanced. They considered fewer perspectives and possible outcomes.

Scary. Thomas Paine wrote about this: “The state of a king shuts him from the world, yet the business of a king requires him to know it thoroughly.”

7 Replies to “Power Makes You More Dismissive”

  1. I wonder whether this is the very definition of what ‘power’ is – rather than being a consequence. People generally seek power because they think it will make their lives easier – i.e. because its very nature is that they won’t have to deal with as much complexity in order to get results. They don’t seek it in order to make their lives more challenging or difficult.

    I also think this is generally understood. My guess is that if you ask 1000 people the question:

    “Which of these statements more accurately reflects the effect of power on people:”

    a) Power Corrupts
    b) Power Enlightens

    I think you’d see significantly more people choosing answer a. My suspicion is that the reasons you don’t hear people expressing outrage about it unless they are actually threatened is the sense that it’s an immutable fact of life and that most people have to pay respect to someone in power over them.

    I personally question the immutability, but have little doubt about the second issue.

  2. Historically, industry improvements have happened in times of crisis. I wonder if the threat of losing power due to a crisis event tempers this dismissive attitude.

    The Lean quality people are quick to point out that most of their poster quality success stories happened at companies that were near death.

  3. People tend to get power because (among other factors) they consistently and intensely desire power. People who work in large companies or bureaucracies know that there is work you do to do a good job, and ‘work’ you do to become a candidate for promotion.

    I don’t know whose saying this is but, ‘power transforms a person into a thing; love transforms a thing into a person’. I think it’s D.T. Suzuki’s.

  4. Seth: I agree – isolate is a much less loaded term – in practice I’m not sure there’s a difference since what we’re really talking about is quality of decision making. It would certainly be more interesting to use the word ‘isolate’ when questioning people about their beliefs though.

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