Study: Lacking Power Experiences Can Make it Difficult to Act Powerfully

The simple act of thinking back to a time when you felt powerful is linked to better performances in job interviews, presentations and exams.

A new study by researchers at INSEAD and Columbia Business School published in the journal Social Cognition finds that a key factor shaping when these effects are likely to occur rests on the ease with which people can retrieve an experience of power.

“Power is an extremely pervasive force that governs our behaviors and determines the difference between success and failure in a number of interpersonal contexts,” said INSEAD Assistant Professor of Marketing David Dubois.

Adam Galinsky, Chair of the Management Division at Columbia Business School, noted that “merely remembering a past episode of power can significantly transform thinking, feeling and behaviors across social situations - and yield significant social advantages like greater optimism, persuasive abilities and eventually even land you a job. So if that ability to remember a past episode is compromised, it can limit a person’s potential to feel powerful.”

Build feelings of power

Given the potential implications of such simple interventions, understanding when and why they may indeed “build feelings of power” becomes important.

In the article, “Ease of Retrieval moderates the effects of power: Implications for the replicability of power recall effects,” Dubois, Joris Lammers of University of Cologne, Derek D. Rucker of Northwestern University and Galinsky conducted a series of experiments to show how the ease with which power episodes come to mind can affect the effectiveness of a power manipulation inducing people to think about a power episode during which they had or lacked power.

This proposition was tested across a series of experiments in which 1) people were asked to remember an episode of power or powerlessness 2) ease of recall was manipulated or measured and 3) people’s response toward well-known consequences of power such as greater confidence or greater likelihood to disobey orders was measured.

Specifically, classic work shows a sense of high power is typically linked to make participants more confident and able to stand up for themselves, hold on to resources or even act selfishly, going against the greater good for their own gain.

The authors tested whether a change in the ease of recalling a power experience would moderate these consequences.

For instance, in one experiment, disobedience – a by-product of power – was tested with a scenario in which participants’ landlords asked them to move out of their rented homes as soon as possible. Social psychology finds high-power individuals are much more likely to speak out when they disagree.

Consistent with these findings, the results of this experiment revealed that participants in the high-power condition were more likely to be disobedient, to stay longer in the rental, when they could easily retrieve a memory of power. However, having difficulty in retrieving such a memory dramatically reduced this tendency.

Overall, high power led to participants being disobedient, to stay longer in the rental, but only when retrieving a power memory was easy.

Participants in another experiment were asked if they would exceed the speed limit when running late for an appointment. Those in the high power condition were more likely to break the law than those in the low power condition, but again only when retrieving a power experience was easy (vs. hard).

“Difficulty in remembering an episode of power may either be chronic or situational. People from a low social-economic background may have chronic low power therefore recalling a memory of a powerful situation would be more difficult,” said Galinsky.

“Our research shows that power is not something that can simply be given or an individual can be made to feel. The ability for people to feel powerful enough to carry out ambitious plans will depend on their ability to easily retrieve small but meaningful experiences of power they’ve accumulated throughout their journey, not through some magic wand,” said Dubois.

Key enabler

For organizations, this suggests that power sharing may be a key enabler to generate feelings of power across collaborators, overtime. This could take the form of involving workers in participatory projects and activities, engagement, and small power experiences to encourage employees to remember they are in control of their destiny and resources.

A personal sense of power may just stem from accumulating short episodes of power.


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