What Power Does to Your Mind

In the book series A Song of Ice and Fire, power is held by whoever is sitting on the Iron Throne. In the Lord of the Rings, power took the form of a gold ring. In the Marvel Cinematic Universe, power can be gained by possessing the tesseract and other infinity stones. In the Wolf of Wall Street, power lies in material wealth. Lastly, in ranking the most powerful and influential people in the real world, most likely it would include people who are of high political rank, people of royalty or people with celebrity status.

From these examples, we can derive a general interpretation that power is broadly perceived as an external factor, a highly coveted advantage that can only be gained through material possession.

But power is not limited to external factors, nor is it only applicable to fame and fortune. Several published research papers have postulated that power has psychological implications. Every individual has a perceived level of power, and that directly influences their character, choices and actions.

But before we go further on this topic, we must first define what power is. For the purposes of this article, we will look at power from a socio-psychological standpoint and use Susan Filke’s definition from her “power-as-control” theory. The theory defines power as control over valued resources and over others’ outcomes (Fiske, 1993). With that direction, we will delve into some hypotheses that give evidence to what power does to the mind.

High-power people tend to be socially-independent

In the paper, ’Power Gets You High’, by Gerben Van Kleef, he cites that high-power individuals tend to experience fewer social constraints and more resource-rich environments compared to their lower power counterparts (Keltner, et al., 2003).

This means that people with a perceived high level of power are more inclined to dismiss established social constructs. Whether it’s intentional or not, high-power people place themselves socially at a distance and would be more inclined to act on their own concepts, which they believe will help them retain control over valued resources.

Powerful people tend to prioritize self-interest

Because powerful people are more likely to be socially-independent, according to Van Kleef’s paper, they tend to prioritize themselves over others in social life. They recognize their status and feel that their concepts and beliefs are above reproach, whether consciously or not.

In this case, they are also more prone to forcing their own beliefs to other people in order to maintain power. This can manifest in the simplest situations such as interrupting conversation partners (DePaulo & Friedman, 1998), discounting expert advice (Tost, Gino, & Larrick, 2008), an inflated sense of importance (Kipnis, 1976) and they are more impressed with their own selves than by other people (Van Kleef, 2015).

Power influences how you get inspired

This leads us to inspiration. Van Kleef, in his paper, cites Matthew McConaughey’s Oscar acceptance speech as an example of the interplay between power and inspiration. McConaughey tells the story of how his role model is always himself years into the future. People with a perceived high level of power tend to look inward rather than outward when looking for inspiration and are more focused on themselves than others (Van Kleef, 2015).

You will notice this with some people who talk more about themselves than others and are more inspired by their own experiences. This inward-directed point of reference can also shape people’s outward perspectives and how they recognize emotional signals. High power people tend to have difficulty in these situations.

Power either corrupts or enables your moral identity

We often view power as a negative thing that brings out the evil in most people. Our history, literature and media is littered with evidence of this perception, of people who have risen to power and abused it. But though high-power people do tend to prioritize themselves and their own interests above others, Katherine DeCelles and her colleagues proposed that the psychological experience of power is linked to one’s moral identity.

If you have a weak moral identity, you will have the tendency to place your self-interest above all else. Here is where power corruption happens because social constructs are dismissed and the powerless are depreciated. But in the presence of a strong, stable moral identity, self-interested behavior is lessened in order to promote what DeCelles called “the common good.”

All of us have some degree of perceived power and though we might not be fully aware of its effects on the way we think and act, it shapes how we deal with ourselves and our outward relationships. Did you see yourself described in this article? Or someone you know? Would you think you are high power or low power? Let us know in the comments section.

Power Gets You High by Van Kleef, Oveis & Homan, van der Lowe, Keltner