How Power Affects Mental Flexibility in Perspective Taking

Perspective taking is critical for trying to understand other people’s minds and predict their moves. Yet, our default inclination is to forgo perspective taking, and it may be aggravated by various biases such as the curse of knowledge. Also, perspective taking can be noticeably impaired by the feelings of high power. When we feel powerful, we trust our existing thoughts more and we ignore other people’s perspectives.

Research on Power and Perspective Taking

In a 2006 study by Adam Galinsky, Joseph Magee, Ena Inesi, and Deborah Gruenfeld, participants had to draw a letter E on their forehead so that the other person would recognize it.[1] The correct way is to draw the letter in reverse: not the way you see it (Ε), but the way the other person sees it ().

In the study, some participants were primed with high-power: they recalled an instance when they had power over someone, and merely remembering having plenty of power is enough to make the person feel more powerful. Others were primed with little power: they had to recall a time when they were controlled by someone else. Then the participants had to draw the letter E on their forehead. People primed with high-power were much more likely to neglect the other person’s perspective but low-power participants were more likely to use the other person’s perspective.

Takeaway

When trying to understand other people’s viewpoints or trying to predict their moves, avoid pumping yourself with feelings of high power. This doesn’t mean that feelings of power will impair all sorts of thinking and problem-solving. In fact, there may be situations when feeling powerful is useful; for instance, power may lead to form more abstract representations of the problem, and such higher level construals are useful when you need to avoid being dragged down by the trivial details and instead focus on more essential features of the problem, the gist of the situation. Yet, when it comes to trying to understand other people’s perspectives, power may backfire.

Sources

[1] Adam D. Galinsky, Joseph C. Magee, M. Ena Inesi, and Deborah H. Gruenfeld, Power and Perspectives Not Taken, Psychological Science, 17, 1068–1074 (2006).