Psychology research has shown that people holding power have an increased focus on actions, goals, abstract thinking and goal directed behaviors. This focus of one’s attention on power has 3 effects on its holder:
- Impact on social attentiveness
- It makes the person
- It reveals the person
These effects can be either positive and beneficial, or destructive and dangerous.
1. Impact on social attentiveness: power in a way creates a psychological distance from others.
Power confers some independence and the powerful people are less attentive to other’s internal experiences. It takes two main forms:
- There is a tendency to less take other people’s perspective into consideration
- When they look at others it is usually through a lens of self-interest
The powerless people on the other side need to be more vigilant with the changing environment as they have less “control” over it.
In a nut shell, powerful people have less interest and abilities to identify emotional states of others, are less compassionate and show less empathy. Power in a way creates a psychological distance from others. This allows the powerful person to conform less to group pressure and be less easily persuaded. Depending on how and where this takes place can be both very functional and valuable or dysfunction and dangerous.
2. Power makes the person: power transforms individuals’ cognition and behavior.
Power changes the people and produces predictable thoughts and behaviors. This has been confirmed by neuroscience studies which have shown:
- positive attributes like being action oriented, optimistic, having broad visions of the future and more abilities for abstract thinking but also
- negative attributes such as overconfidence, risk taking and tendency to be prone to the illusions of control.
3. Power reveals the person: it magnifies your psychological characteristics
Power acts as a catalyst, it makes you more of who you are and magnifies your pre-dispositions: if you have an addictive nature, you will reinforce that tendency, if you are rude, you will become ruder, etc…In general the behavior will be more in line with the internal dispositions as there will be less inhibitions than in the absence of power.
This is reinforced by the idiosyncratic effect where people and society give more freedom to powerful people to diverge from social and societal norms.
The magnifying effect of power will also make the individual more in line with his or her culture. Freedom and individuality in the West will be even more expressed in a powerful person, while in the more communal and interdependent Eastern societies, the powerful person will become more social.
So if power has potentially intrinsically positive effects on an individual and its ability to influence and shape organizations and societies, it has also very negative effects such as the magnifying of the natural dispositions of the individual holding a powerful role.
These findings echo strongly what Abraham Lincoln foresaw many years ago: “Nearly all men can stand adversity, but if you want to test a man's character, give him power”.
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