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: FDA approves 1st drug for moderate and severe eczema cases

Related Stories

Researchers find video games influence sexist attitudes

March 28, 2017

There are distinct similarities in the way women are portrayed in many popular video games. Female characters are typically attractive, scantily clad, appear in sexually suggestive ways and generally have limited roles.

Recommended for you

Blood test unlocks new frontier in treating depression

March 29, 2017

Doctors for the first time can determine which medication is more likely to help a patient overcome depression, according to research that pushes the medical field beyond what has essentially been a guessing game of prescribing ...

Study finds natural chemical helps brain adapt to stress

March 29, 2017

A natural signaling molecule that activates cannabinoid receptors in the brain plays a critical role in stress-resilience—the ability to adapt to repeated and acute exposures to traumatic stress, according to researchers ...

New therapy focus for depression in young people

March 28, 2017

A therapy which focuses on finding ways to engage in activities that generate positive emotions and combat negative ones could be an effective way of treating young people with depression, researchers at the University of ...

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.