4 minutes reading time (872 words)

Power, confidence and politics

Power corrupts, as the old adage goes. An interesting set of new experiments sheds some light on this.  Deb Gruenfeld had noted in personal situations just how unthinking some powerful people could be, such as the businessman sitting next to her on the plane who turned the fan away from him and towards her for the flight so she became increasingly cold. With this to spur her on she, with colleagues undertook a range of experiments to explore such  issues[1] . For example people were asked to write an essay in which either they had lots of power or very little power. They were then asked to go into another room for a further test and the instructions were on the desk. In fact also on the desks was a powerful and annoying fan.  Interestingly 69% of those who had written about having power moved the fan, but only 42% of those who wrote about being in a low power situation. Other subjects in a 2nd experiment were again asked to write an essay in which they had high or low power. They were then asked to do a few tasks, the most interesting of which was to draw a capital E on their forehead as quickly as they could. What was fascinating was that those in the high power position were nearly three times more likely to write the E in a “self-oriented” direction, compared to those in the lower power position who were more likely to write an E facing outwards so that others could read it. These are the kind of findings we have come to expect. Other studies have shown that if people randomly sit on a high or low desk, those on the higher ones tend to be more assertive. More relevantly Paul Piff had found that those with higher social class and more money tended to be not only more assertive but also less prosocial, for example less likely to give way to others in a car and more likely to cheat [2].


These are not trivial examples at a time when inequalities of various sorts have been increasing. Another recent study found that people who are high in confidence, in fact who are very overconfident, are more likely to be far more successful in whatever they are doing and to be admired and respected, gain higher status  and to do well in their careers [3]. This research showed that overconfident people are generally  thought of as more competent, even when they in fact are not, and they also are more likely to achieve highly senior roles. Believing one is better than others jumps people up the social ladder, and such people are not seen as overconfident but more as good at what they do. Power, assertiveness and self-belief that brooks little doubt are very powerful forces, which give advantages over those who are prepared to remain a little more in uncertainty and doubt, as Keats urged , or who are  introverted and reflective, as Susan Cain so graphically showed in her recent book, Quiet: The power of introverts in a world that can't stop talking[4]. Iain McGilchrist has suggested that certainty and clarity are characteristics that the left hemisphere of our brains are dominant in [5], and he has argued powerfully that we are living increasingly in a left hemisphere world dominated by logic, control and too much clarity. He has strikingly described the left hemisphere as the ‘Berlosconi of the brain’ because of the way it controls the media by telling powerful stories that brook no doubt or uncertainty.

In the run-up to the US elections it might be worth noting that more left leaning liberal minded Americans have been found to be much more likely than republicans to  have set of personality traits which include more openness to experience, are prepared to try new things and to change whilst those on the right are more likely to stick to what they know, act with more certainty  and be more suspicious of anything different. A recent look at some of the brain science, reviewing 13 peer reviewed studies suggests that this is the case too, and that for example liberals have on average more tolerance to uncertainty, which tends to be linked to a bigger anterior cingulate cortex, whilst those on the right are more likely to be motivated by fear (a more active right amygdala). These studies look at  typical differences, although these are only typical and of course by no means true in every case, and they are  reviewed here,


[1]        M. E. Inesi, D. H. Gruenfeld, and A. D. Galinsky, ‘How power corrupts relationships: Cynical attributions for others’ generous acts’, Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 2012.

[2]        P. K. Piff, D. M. Stancato, S. Côté, R. Mendoza-Denton, and D. Keltner, ‘Higher social class predicts increased unethical behavior’, PNAS, Feb. 2012.

[3]        C. Anderson, S. Brion, D. A. Moore, and J. A. Kennedy, ‘A Status-Enhancement Account of Overconfidence.’, 2012.

[4]        S. Cain, Quiet: The power of introverts in a world that can’t stop talking. Viking, 2012.

[5]        I. Mcgilchrist, The Master and His Emissary: The Divided Brain and the Making of the Western World, Reprint. Yale University Press, 2010.

Empathy, feeling good and healing
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Saturday, 24 October 2020

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