The Decisions of the Powerful: When Confidence Leads to Sloppy Thinking

Leaders need a little humility

Posted Nov 01, 2011

Corner offices. Tall and plush leather chairs. The swaggering gait and confident postures. Walk into an office environment, and it's usually not hard to guess which people hold the positions of power, awarded the task of being the deciders. But do all these trimmings and reminders of the power hierarchy really make for the best decision-making among those who are in charge?

Ordinary people feel more let down by the very powerful than they ever have in recent history—how could our political and economic elites, who are supposed to know better, have made such a mess of things? So maybe it shouldn't come as a surprise that psychologists are becoming very interested in studying how feeling powerful can affect the ways in which people process the information that drives their decisions. The picture that's emerging is that the heady sensation of power might at times actually interfere with clear-headed thinking.

For example, in a 2007 study, Pablo Briñol and his colleagues had student participants engage in a bit of role-playing, with some of them being randomly assigned to the role of "bosses", sitting in a taller and nicer chair than the "subordinates", and acting as if they had complete control over how work was divvied up, evaluated and rewarded, while those assigned to the position of lowly employee simply took orders. A little later, both the "bosses" and the "subordinates" had to evaluate an ad for a mobile phone that either contained very compelling reasons to buy the phone, or some rather shoddy arguments. The two groups had very different patterns of responding: The "subordinates" showed very good discrimination between the two ads, and were much more impressed by the strong arguments than the weak ones. But the "bosses" didn't really distinguish very much between the strong and weak arguments in the ads, and found both to be more or less equally persuasive.

The authors of the study suggest that when people experienced the rush of power, they were less motivated to think deeply about the messages in the ads, relying instead on their first impressions. In other words, feeling powerful made them confident in whatever opinions they might have already formed before assessing the arguments. To see if this explanation was on the right track, the researchers then ran the same test, but with student participants doing the role-playing after seeing the ad. In this case, their initial processing of the ad shouldn't have been tainted by a heightened sense of power while reading it, so they should be able to distinguish between the two ads on the basis of the quality of their arguments. This turned out to be true. In fact, when people had the opportunity to evaluate the ads before being elevated to a position of power, feeling powerful after the fact made them more confident in their evaluation, so that the difference in their attitudes towards the convincing versus the flimsy ads was actually magnified. So it seems that feeling confident is fine—but only if people first have the opportunity to evaluate information unimpeded by an inflated sense of their own importance.

More recently, additional new evidence that a sense of power can act as an unwelcome filter on information comes from a study by Julia Fischer and her colleagues. In this research, the feeling of power was induced in a much more subtle and indirect way. This time, participants were simply told to clench their fist throughout the experiment, or to sit in an open, expansive "power position". The "powerless" participants were told to keep their hands limp and open, or to sit in a constricted posture. (The idea here is that your own body language doesn't just reflect your state of mind, but can actually alter it. If this sounds a little far-fetched to you, you might be interested in reading an earlier post summarizing some further evidence for this general theory.)

Fischer's study participants were first asked to make a decision on a hypothetical issue—for example, whether to sell organic food or diet products at a snack stall—on the basis of some information that they were given. Later, they saw some more detailed information, and were told that they could change their minds if they thought the new information warranted it. The researchers were interested to see to what extent the participants would select and focus on just the information that confirmed their initial decision, rather than considering all of the new information. What they found was that those who had struck a "power pose" tended to limit themselves more to the information that aligned with their earlier decision; as in the study by Pablo Briñol , the confidence that came with power resulted in a less thorough and unbiased assessment of new information.

So perhaps, to encourage the best decisions from our leaders, we really should be doing away with all the subtle reminders of their power status and encouraging a humbler stance, at least just before they're asked to look at some important new information. And chances are, if you're trying to win your boss over to a new way of thinking, you'll have better luck making your arguments over lunch or while sharing a drink than you would in his spacious, gleaming office as he peers down at you from his fancy swivel chair.

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Briñol , P., Petty, R.E., Valle, C., Rucker, D.D., & Becerra, A. 2007. The effect of message recipients' power before and after persuasion: A self-validation approach. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 93, 1040-1053.

Fischer, J., Fischer, P., Englich, B., Aydin, N., & Frey, D. 2011. Empower my decisions: The effects of power gestures on confirmatory information processing. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 47, 1146-1154.