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Does Power Impact How We Perceive Emotion?

Power and Understanding Emotions in Others

Life is full of power differences. The majority of us have bosses. They have more power than we do. All of us live in a governmental system. The police all have power over us. So do the courts, doctors, and well, you get the idea.

In terms of social inequality, minority groups and individuals also have less power, as do less wealthy groups and individuals.

With every person in this planet impacted by power differences, it seems quite important that individuals in power can understand the emotion others feel who are not in power.

But does power impact our ability to infer emotion in others? Recent research by psychologists Ayse Uksul and Mario Weick at the University of Kent and Silke Paulmann at the University of Essex (both in the United Kingdom) tested this in two studies.

In Study 1, participants completed a scale to assess how powerful they believe they are. This included items such as "I can get other people to listen to what I say." Each participant was then asked to listen to a series of sentences spoken by recorded human voices. These sentences expressed 6 different emotions (anger, disgust, fear, happiness, surprise, sadness) or a neutral tone. Their task was to guess what emotion was being expressed in each sentence.

The results showed that for people who scored higher on the power scale, the rate of correct emotions detected was lower. That is, the powerful people were worse at accurately discerning emotion in the voices. Interestingly, although women showed a trend at being better at this than men, the relationship between power and emotion detection remained across genders.

In Study 2, they sought to test this relationship using an experiment in order to provide evidence that power causes changes in the ability to detect emotions. (a correlation like in Study 1 can not demonstrate causality)

Participants were randomly assigned to either a condition of high power or low power. This was done by having participants write about a time in which they felt they had power over another person or about a time in which someone had power over them. This 'manipulation' of power was found to influence participants feelings of power, as expected.

They next completed the same measure of emotion recognition in voices as in Study 1.

The results indicated that nearly 74% of the emotions were recognized correctly by people in the low power condition. But in the high power condition, the rate dropped to 66%. Power impacted the ability to detect every emotion, except for sadness and surprise. Again, although women were better at this task than men, power impacted emotional recognition for both men and women.

These studies provide evidence that not only do people who perceive themselves as powerful do worse at recognizing emotion in voices, but that power itself reduces this ability.

The results have interesting implications for understanding how people in power positions might enact policy when trying to understand the situations of people who are not in power. Whether they are bosses or government officials, they might not be as good as - ironically enough - the very people they are governing.


Uskul, A. K., Paulmann, S., & Weick, M. (2016). Social power and recognition of emotional prosody: High power is associated with lower recognition accuracy than low power. Emotion, 16(1), 11.