Blog Posts

18
Apr

The Science of Smart: Feeling Powerful Makes You Think Better

Successful leaders often seem to have sharper minds than the rest of us—isn’t that how they got to the top in the first place? While we often assume that people become powerful because of their superior thinking skills, research shows that the relationship flows in the other direction as well: power changes the way a person thinks, making them better at focusing on relevant information, integrating disparate pieces of knowledge, and identifying hidden patterns than people who are powerless. People who feel powerful also show improved “executive functioning”: they are better able to concentrate, plan, inhibit unhelpful impulses and flexibly adapt to change.

Sitting at the head of the table may help you to think better.

A sense of power “has dramatic effects on thought and behavior,” writes Adam Galinsky, a professor at Columbia Business School, in 2011 article in the journal Psychological Science. Indeed, “being in a high-power role transforms people psychologically.” The good news is that we don’t have to wait until we’re the boss to reap the mental rewards of powerfulness. Here, three ways to take advantage of the power of power:

Find a role in which you feel powerful. All of us can identify some area of life in which we’re able to take the lead—and once we do so, changes in how we think and act will follow. “The social roles people inhabit can change their most basic cognitive processes,” notes Pamela Smith, a social psychologist at Radboud University in the Netherlands. Studies show that when people are assigned to the manager role (in a real organization or in one simulated in the lab), they immediately become more likely to act decisively, to take risks, to persist on tasks they take up, and to think more abstractly and optimistically.

This has implications for how we treat others—students, employees, offspring—as well, suggesting that we should reverse the usual practice of waiting until individuals prove themselves worthy of holding power. Empowering people now, by giving them more control and autonomy, will lead them to think and act in ways befitting the role.

Remember a time when you felt powerful. Merely recalling a powerful moment from your own past makes you more likely to act powerfully in the present—a difference that is readily apparent to others. In a forthcoming study in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, researchers asked participants to recall a time they had or lacked power, then had them write a job application letter or participate in a simulated interview for admission to business school. Independent judges found the people who’d been primed to feel powerful more impressive and more persuasive—a finding, the authors note, with “important implications for understanding the psychology of job interviews.”

Assume a powerful posture. In his 2011 study, Adam Galinsky and his colleagues asked seated participants to assume either an “expansive” position (one arm on the armrest of their own chair, the other arm on the back of a nearby chair; legs crossed so that the ankle of one leg rested on the thigh of the other leg and stretched beyond the edge of the chair) or a “constricted” position (hands under their thighs, shoulders dropped, legs together). People in the expansive position were more likely to make a bold move in a simulated game of blackjack, and were better at identifying hidden pictures within a series of fragmented images (a measure of abstract thinking).

Galinsky highlights the fascinating finding, made in another study, that assuming a powerful posture reduces cortisol (a stress hormone) and elevates testosterone (a hormone associated with self-assertion). “To think and act like a powerful person,” Galinsky concludes, “people do not need to possess role power or recall being in a powerful role”—they just need to arrange their bodies in a powerful way. (Abstracts of the studies referenced above can be found here.)

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Annie Murphy Paul

    Annie Murphy Paul is a book author and magazine journalist who writes about how we learn and how we can do it better. A contributor to Time magazine, she writes a weekly column about learning for Time.com, and has written for The New York Times Magazine, The New York Times Book Review, Slate, and O, The Oprah Magazine, among many other publications. She is the author of “The Cult of Personality,” a cultural history and scientific critique of personality tests, and of “Origins,” a book about the science of prenatal influences. She is now at work on “Brilliant: The New Science of Smart,” to be published by Crown in 2014. You can read more about the science of learning at her website, www.anniemurphypaul.com.