Having less power impairs the mind and ability to get ahead, study shows

May 15, 2008

New research appearing in the May issue of Psychological Science, a journal of the Association for Psychological Science, suggests that being put in a low-power role may impair a person’s basic cognitive functioning and thus, their ability to get ahead.

In their article, Pamela Smith of Radboud University Nijmegen, and colleagues Nils B. Jostmann of VU University Amsterdam, Adam Galinsky of the Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University, and Wilco W. van Dijk of VU University Amsterdam, focus on a set of cognitive processes called executive functions. Executive functions help people maintain and pursue their goals in difficult, distracting situations. The researchers found that lacking power impaired people’s ability to keep track of ever-changing information, to parse out irrelevant information, and to successfully plan ahead to achieve their goals.

In one experiment, the participants completed a Stroop task, a common psychological test designed to exercise executive functions. Participants who had earlier been randomly assigned to a low-power group made more errors in the Stroop task than those who had been assigned to a high-power group. Smith and colleagues also found that these results were not due to low-power people being less motivated or putting in less effort. Instead, those lacking in power had difficulty maintaining a focus on their current goal.

In another experiment, participants were asked to move an arrangement of disks from a start position to a final position in as few moves as possible, known to researchers as the Tower-of-Hanoi task. This task tests the more complex ability of planning. In some trials there was a catch: participants had to move the first disk in a direction that was opposite to its final position. Low power participants made more errors and required more moves on these trials, demonstrating poor planning.

Smith and colleagues believe their results have “direct implications for management and organizations.” In high-risk industries such as health care, a single employee error can have fatal consequences. Empowering these employees could reduce the likelihood of such errors. Additionally, their work illustrates how hierarchies perpetuate themselves. By randomly assigning individuals to high and low-power conditions, they demonstrate that simply lacking power can automatically lead to performance that reinforces one’s low standing, sending the powerless towards a destiny of dispossession.

Source: Association for Psychological Science

Explore further: Teenagers with incontinence are at risk of underachieving at secondary school

Related Stories

Teenagers with incontinence are at risk of underachieving at secondary school

December 11, 2017
Continence problems are among the most common paediatric health problems. It's commonly believed that continence problems resolve with age in all children. However, severe incontinence in childhood can persist into adolescence. ...

Large genetic study links tendency to undervalue future rewards with ADHD, obesity

December 11, 2017
Researchers at University of California San Diego School of Medicine have found a genetic signature for delay discounting—the tendency to undervalue future rewards—that overlaps with attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder ...

Fewer urinary tract infections seen postoperatively at ACS NSQIP-participating hospitals

December 1, 2017
A new study of procedure-specific trends in postoperative complications finds that most of 10 types of operations have improved rates of surgical site and bladder infections since 2008. However, the researchers did identify ...

Do your ears hang low? The complex genetics behind earlobe attachment

November 30, 2017
A common, hands-on method for teaching genetics in grade school encourages students to compare their earlobes with those of their parents: Are they attached and smoothly mesh with the jawline? Or are they detached and dangly? ...

Nursing homes can prevent infections through performance improvement collaboratives

December 5, 2017
Each year, 150,000 U.S. nursing home residents will receive a urinary catheter—half of whom will develop a catheter-associated urinary tract infection (CAUTI). While 70 percent of facilities report having an infection preventionist ...

Left-brained: Study suggests conservative Democrats don't compute for liberal voters

November 13, 2017
Political partisans would like you to believe voters' heads will explode if faced with candidates crossing party lines on key policies - a Democrat who opposes abortion, say, or a Republican who supports gun control.

Recommended for you

After searching 12 years for bipolar disorder's cause, team concludes it has many

December 15, 2017
Nearly 6 million Americans have bipolar disorder, and most have probably wondered why. After more than a decade of studying over 1,100 of them in-depth, a University of Michigan team has an answer - or rather, seven answers.

Suicidal thoughts rapidly reduced with ketamine, finds study

December 14, 2017
Ketamine was significantly more effective than a commonly used sedative in reducing suicidal thoughts in depressed patients, according to researchers at Columbia University Medical Center (CUMC). They also found that ketamine's ...

Do bullies have more sex?

December 14, 2017
Adolescents who are willing to exploit others for personal gain are more likely to bully and have sex than those who score higher on a measure of honesty and humility. This is according to a study in Springer's journal Evolutionary ...

Children's screen-time guidelines too restrictive, according to new research

December 14, 2017
Digital screen use is a staple of contemporary life for adults and children, whether they are browsing on laptops and smartphones, or watching TV. Paediatricians and scientists have long expressed concerns about the impact ...

Eating together as a family helps children feel better, physically and mentally

December 14, 2017
Children who routinely eat their meals together with their family are more likely to experience long-term physical and mental health benefits, a new Canadian study shows.

The iceberg model of self-harm

December 14, 2017
Researchers have created a model of self-harm that shows high levels of the problem in the community, especially in young girls, and the need for school-based prevention measures.

4 comments

Adjust slider to filter visible comments by rank

Display comments: newest first

h0dges
3 / 5 (1) May 15, 2008
"Additionally, their work illustrates how hierarchies perpetuate themselves. By randomly assigning individuals to high and low-power conditions, they demonstrate that simply lacking power can automatically lead to performance that reinforces one%u2019s low standing, sending the powerless towards a destiny of dispossession."

Doesn't that sound depressing??
Corban
1 / 5 (1) May 15, 2008
Since someone's always going to lose, who do we want to be the losers? If losers are composed of people who deserve to lose, and victims of circumstance, how do we cherrypick and save the victims while leaving the rest at the bottom?
AJW
not rated yet May 16, 2008
The point is anyone can be made into "the rest".
mrlewish
not rated yet May 16, 2008
Apparently someone is in a lower power position because they didn't understand the article to well.

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.