Who of Us is Powerful and How Can We Tell?

In the study I dub “Are you powerful or not?” I’d be in a third category. Why? Because I felt insulted when instructed to do what researchers asked of students. At Northwestern and Stanford, no less. Here’s what happened. Two professors, Adam Galinsky and Joe Magee divided undergrads into two groups.

One group was primed to feel powerful. They were asked to write about a situation in which they had authority over another individual. The members of the second group were set up to feel subordinate. They were asked to write about a situation in which they had little power.

All participants were then asked to act quickly. Using their dominant hand they were to:
1. Snap their fingers five times, then
2. Pick up a non-toxic marker and write a capital E on their foreheads. This is the part I resisted. (Must be an authority thing.)

They were told that the “E” would be washed off after the experiment. (Further down you’ll read about what happened when some presumably powerful people at a fancy gathering were asked to do something similar.)

Here’s what researchers wanted to watch. There are two ways to draw the “E”. One is to draw the prongs of the letter so that the person drawing it can read it. The researchers believe people who write it this way are “self-oriented.” Conversely, if you wrote the “E” the other way, with the prongs pointing in the opposite direction you must be “other-oriented.” You are helping others to read the “E” you scrawled on your forehead.

The researchers discovered that the group primed to feel powerful was “ almost three times as likely as the low-power group to draw an “E” that would be illegible to anyone but them.”

Their key research conclusion:
The more power a person has, the less capacity he has to take another person’s perspective. In fact, Magee found that as some people secure more power they become “disinhibited.” That may have been what happened to Eliot Spitzer and Bill Clinton, for instance.

I must confess that I was a participant when this study was conducted again later. Unfortunately, there’s another sign of my being in a third, perhaps deviant category. After I was finally persuaded to write that “E” the researchers were discomforted to find that no one – not even me – could read my “writing.” One other participant drew a letter that no one could identify. He’s a self-described “extreme introvert.”

Later I learned of two other resisters. Kristen Wiig and Amy Poehler fromSaturday Night Live” were the only ones who refused to participate when this experiment was conducted by a persuasive “amateur” the New Yorker’s Lauren Collins. She went to the Time 100 banquet, held at Lincoln Center celebrating “the most influential people in the world.” In the middle of this social gathering they “just” had to mark a yellow Post-it and put it on their forehead.

Guess which one of these three wrote the powerful “E”: the gossip columnist, Liz Smith; former Deputy Secretary of Defense and deposed World Bank president, Paul Wolfowitz or chief executive of Goldman Sachs, Lloyd Blankfein?

Sardonic suggestion:
Now if you do NOT want to build unity at your conference or other group meeting, try this. Tout the “E” experiment as a team-building exercise. Afterwards, point out the individuals in the group who appear powerful (thus less thoughtful of others) and those who do not. Then ask them to talk about how they feel abut their label, relative to others. That’s a non – Me2We experience.

Who knows? Some of us women might feel guilty for being powerful yet not empathetic. And some men might feel uncomfortable when placed in the less powerful category, even if they are also labeled as thoughtful of others.

Here’s a more upbeat finding. Do “self-centered”, ruthless people really rise in power? Not always. Social and emotional intelligence can trump ruthless manipulation suggests Washington Post’s Shankar Vedantam who points to The Power Paradox, research led by Dacher Keltner. From the moral angle, Steven Pinker seems to agree.

Want to learn more by participating in a study?

If this kind of research interests you, then become a participant in a study that, examines, “how people view ideas such as altruism, heroism, and other helping behaviors” led by Dr. Philip Zimbardo. Simply fill out a survey that takes 15-30 minutes to complete.

One Response to “Who of Us is Powerful and How Can We Tell?”

  1. Bonnie Says:

    Hello. I found you through a comment you left on my blog. I found this article so interesting. I’ve read a few studies about power; the famous one of course when some were assigned to play jailer, and some prisoners, and another one which I’m sure you heard of. Subjects were told to press a button that would deliver a painful electric shock to other participants. They continued to do this, while obviously uncomfortable, and while they could see the pain the caused. Many did do it just because they were “told.”

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