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Power: It's Good for the Brain

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Power may corrupt, but it also seems to sharpen the mind. According to a new study from the Netherlands, people in a dominant position process information differently than those in a weaker state, allowing them to make complex decisions more easily.

The paper, published in the December issue of the journal Psychological Science, affirms and builds upon a 2006 study that found powerful people tend to think in a more abstract way, detecting patterns and relationships rather than getting distracted by details. Psychologist Pamela Smith of Radboud University Nijmegen, co-author of the earlier study, is also lead author of this new report.

It is obvious to anyone who has put a problem in the back of their minds, only to have the answer unexpectedly pop out sometime later, that unconscious thought tends to aid in the decision-making process. As the researchers put it, “Conscious thought impairs performance in part because it is piecemeal.”

For most people, that is. Smith theorized that being in a position of power somehow allows one to activate the decision-making power of the unconscious even as one stays focused on the issue at hand.

To test it, she and her colleagues assigned 81 graduate students to write for five minutes about either an incident when someone had power over them, or a time when they had power over someone else. They were then presented a variety of information about four automobiles, which they were to sort out to determine the vehicles’ desirability.

Half of the students were asked to think about the cars for four minutes, while the other half were distracted during that period by playing a word-search puzzle. All then rated the cars.

Those in the low-power state of mind performed significantly better if they did the word puzzle, thereby giving their unconscious mind a chance to process the information at hand. But those in the high-power position performed equally well regardless of whether they had been distracted. Their minds efficiently processed the cars’ pros and cons even if they focused their entire attention on the problem.

“The powerful seem to be able to handle so many impactful decisions, without making excessive errors, in part because they generally think more abstractly,” the researchers conclude.

It is comforting to think that nature or evolution has worked it out so that being in a position of authority makes one a better decision-maker. But power can also lead to feelings of invulnerability, which can lead to terrible decision-making, as witnessed recently on Wall Street. Perhaps power sharpens the brain and dulls emotional intelligence at the same time. That isn’t necessarily a good trade-off.