This Is Your Brain on Power

(Carolyn P Speranza / Flickr)

The powerful people of the world look down upon the powerless.

While at Columbia University, Andy J. Yap set up a simple experiment. After manipulating his subjects into powerful or weak states (in the lab, psychologists are the most powerful ones of all), Yap asked them to guess the height and weight of others both in person and from photographs.

"When people feel powerful or feel powerless, it influences their perception of others," said Yap, who is now a postdoctoral researcher at MIT. We judge the power of others in contrast to our own. When we feel powerful, others appear less so—and powerlessness and smallness go together in our minds. After all, CEOs tend to be taller than the average person. And there are estimates that for each inch a person is above average height, they receive $789 more a year. Sure enough, in the study, the powerful people judged others to be shorter than they really are.

"People who are given more power in the lab, they see more choice. They see beyond what is objectively there."

Yap's conclusion is a scientific finding that nicely illustrates what we've known anecdotally for a very long time: Power gets to a person's head. A decade of research on power and behavior show there are some predictable ways people react to power, which can be simply defined as the ability to influence others. While power in governments and across the world can come at incredible costs, in a lab, it's surprisingly simple. Asking a person to recall a time he or she felt powerful can get them in the state of mind. Or there's the aptly named "dictator game," in which a participant is made powerful by putting them charge of doling out the compensation for another participant.

Researchers have even found you can make someone feel power just by posing them in a dominant, expansive position. Think of the shape athletes make when they win something big: Arms outstretch, back arched. Even blind athletes upon victory will strike the same pose, and they didn't learn it by seeing anyone do it. It's that fundamental.

Power isn't corrupting; it's freeing, says Joe Magee, a power researcher and professor of management at New York University. "What power does is that it liberates the true self to emerge," he says. "More of us walk around with kinds of social norms; we work in groups that exert all pressures on us to conform. Once you get into a position of power, then you can be whoever you are."

This manifests in several different ways. For one, the powerful are seen to be less likely to take into account the perspective of others. In one experiment participants were primed to feel powerful or not, and then asked to draw the letter "e" on their foreheads. The letter can be drawn so it looks correct to others, or correct to the person drawing. In this case, high-powered people are two to three times more likely to draw an "e" that appears backwards to others. That is, they were more likely to draw a letter that could only be read by themselves.

Power lends the power holder many benefits. Powerful people are more likely to take decisive action. In one simple experiment, it was shown that people made to feel powerful were more likely to turn off an annoying fan humming in the room. Power reduces awareness of constraints and causes people act more quickly. Powerful people also tend to think more abstractly, favoring the bigger picture over smaller consequences. Powerful people are less likely to remember the constraints to a goal. They downplay risks, and enjoy higher levels of testosterone (a dominance hormone), and lower levels of cortisol (a stress hormone).

"People who are given more power in the lab, they see more choice," Magee says. "They see beyond what is objectively there, the amount of choice they have. More directions for what actions they can take. What it means to have power is to be free of the punishment that one could exert upon you for the thing you did."

Which paves the way for another hallmark of the powerful—hypocrisy. Our guts are right about this one. On a survey, powerful study participants indicated that they were less tolerant of cheating than the less powerful. But then when given the opportunity to cheat and take more compensation for the experiment, the powerful caved in. The authors explain how these tendencies can actually perpetuate power structures in society.

This means that people with power not only take what they want because they can do so unpunished, but also because they intuitively feel they are entitled to do so. Conversely, people who lack power not only fail to get what they need because they are disallowed to take it, but also because they intuitively feel they are not entitled to it.

Where hypocrisy comes, infidelity follows. While stories of politician infidelity are high profile and more therefore salient—think Mark Sanford flying off to South America to be with a lover while telling aides he was hiking the Appalachian trail; or Arnold Schwarzenegger keeping secret a son he had with a mistress—there is evidence that the powerful are more likely to stray into an affair. In a survey of 1,500 professionals, it was found that people higher ranked on a corporate hierarchy were more likely to indicate things like "Would you ever consider cheating on your partner?" on a seven-point scale (this was found true for both men and women). Dishonesty and power go hand-in-hand. In his most recent research, Yap found that just by posing people in the outstretched, power position, they would more likely to take more money than entitled for their time. (Posing like this for two minutes was also found to increase testosterone and lower cortisol hormone levels. So if you want to feel powerful, make yourself big.)

Though it's not that the powerful are bad people. "There is a tendency for people to assume power holders are uncaring, they're cold, they don't care about the little people," says Pamela Smith, a power researcher at the University of California (San Diego). But that's not always the case. It depends on who gets the power. "You put someone in an experiment, temporarily, in a high-powered role, and what you find is that people who say they have pro-social values, the more power they have, the more pro-social they are. The people who say they have more self-centered values tend to be more selfish the more power they have."

So what can our most powerful do with this information? The researchers I spoke to suggested that knowing how power can influence your mind could create a self-awareness of it. That is, if someone acquires power knows he or she will be more likely to look down on people, and not take their thoughts into consideration, perhaps they can correct themselves. Yap even finds some empathy with despots. "So when people say, this leader, this dictator is corrupt because he has power," Yap says, "he's human, and he might be influenced by these psychological effects in a way he didn't know."

Pity the despot.