"Long before it's in the papers"
June 04, 2013


Dip in brainpower may follow drop in real power

May 10, 2008
Special to World Science  

Mod­ern, open and dem­o­crat­ic so­ci­eties are sup­posed to re­ward brains and hard work with suc­cess, at least some­what fair­ly.

But what if fail­ure degrades brain­pow­er, cre­at­ing a vi­cious loop in which suc­cess slips in­ex­orably fur­ther away for an un­lucky group that started out worse off?

Pow­er­less peo­ple of­ten achieve less be­cause lack of pow­er it­self erodes cog­ni­tive func­tion­ing, re­search­ers say.

A group of re­search­ers claims this may be ex­actly what hap­pens, so rosy views on the ben­e­fits of ad­vanced so­ci­eties must be re­ap­praised as sim­plis­tic.

“Pow­er­less peo­ple of­ten achieve less be­cause lack­ing pow­er it­self fun­da­men­tally al­ters cog­ni­tive func­tion­ing,” wrote the sci­en­tists in a pa­per de­scrib­ing their re­search find­ings. 

The results high­light the im­por­tance of “empow­ering” em­ploy­ees to stim­u­late bet­ter work, es­pe­cially in in­dus­tries where er­rors can be fa­tal, they added. The find­ings, by Pam­e­la Smith of Rad­boud Uni­ver­s­ity Nij­me­gen in The Neth­er­lands and three col­leagues, ap­pear in the May is­sue of the jour­nal Psy­cho­log­i­cal Sci­ence.

The re­search­ers con­ducted three ex­pe­ri­ments with be­tween 77 and 102 Dutch uni­ver­s­ity stu­dents. They were put in dif­fer­ent sce­nar­i­os de­signed to make them feel ei­ther dom­i­nant or sub­or­di­nate. This mes­sage of “rank” was con­veyed ei­ther through sub­tle cues or di­rect state­ments, such as tell­ing par­ti­ci­pants that they would be paired with a part­ner who would di­rect and eval­u­ate their work. 

The par­ti­ci­pants were then sub­jected to puz­zles or oth­er think­ing tests. The “pow­erless” play­ers con­sist­ently dis­played im­pair­ments in key think­ing pro­cess­es such as plan­ning, up­dat­ing a men­tal pic­ture and in­hibit­ing ir­rel­e­vant in­forma­t­ion, they wrote.

The re­search­ers ar­gued that this dip in over­all “ex­ec­u­tive func­tion” among low-sta­tus peo­ple re­sults from a loss of fo­cus on over­all goals. Con­sist­ent with this, they added, these play­ers per­formed as well as oth­ers in a fourth ex­pe­ri­ment us­ing a think­ing game de­signed so that it would re­main easy to fo­cus on the task goal. The orig­i­nal per­for­mance deficits seemed not to re­sult from a gen­er­al loss of mo­tiva­t­ion—“low sta­tus” play­ers re­ported put­ting in as much ef­fort as oth­ers, the re­search­ers said.

Ul­ti­mate­ly, they ar­gued, low sta­tus may drain per­for­mance by forc­ing peo­ple to de­vote part of their thoughts to the un­cer­tain­ties and threats that can arise from their su­pe­ri­ors’ chang­ing whims. A re­sult is that the pow­erless nar­row their fo­cus to small-pic­ture goals and to “de­tails” that might not be rel­e­vant to the task.

The find­ings “have di­rect im­plica­t­ions for man­age­ment and or­gan­iz­a­tions,” Smith and col­leagues wrote. In many in­dus­tries such as health care and nu­clear pow­er, “er­rors can be cost­ly, tip­ping the bal­ance from life to death. In­creas­ing em­ploy­ees’ sense of pow­er could lead to im­proved ex­ec­u­tive func­tion­ing, de­creas­ing the like­li­hood of cat­a­stroph­ic er­rors,” they con­tin­ued.

“Such empow­erment might be par­tic­u­larly vi­tal in jobs where it is dif­fi­cult to main­tain goal fo­cus be­cause crit­i­cal situa­t­ions are in­fre­quent,” such as air­port se­cur­ity and product-defect de­tec­tion.

In a larg­er sense, the find­ings sug­gest that dif­fer­ences in in­her­ent abil­ity, mo­tiva­t­ion, or dis­crimina­t­ion aren’t the only fac­tors sep­a­rat­ing the “haves and the have-nots,” Smith and col­leagues wrote. “The cog­ni­tive im­pair­ments of be­ing pow­erless may al­so be an im­por­tant con­trib­u­tor, lead­ing the pow­erless to­wards a des­ti­ny of dis­pos­ses­sion.”

* * *

Send us a comment on this story, or send it to a friend


Sign up for

On Home Page         


  • Meet­ing on­line may lead to hap­pier mar­riages

  • Pov­erty re­duction, environ­mental safe­guards go hand in hand: UN re­port


  • Was black­mail essen­tial for marr­iage to evolve?

  • Plu­to has even cold­er “twin” of sim­ilar size, studies find

  • Could simple an­ger have taught people to coop­erate?

  • Diff­erent cul­tures’ mu­sic matches their spe­ech styles, study finds


  • F­rog said to de­scribe its home through song

  • Even r­ats will lend a help­ing paw: study

  • D­rug may undo aging-assoc­iated brain changes in ani­mals

Modern, open and democratic societies are supposed to reward brains and hard work with success—at least somewhat fairly. But what failure erodes brainpower, creating a vicious loop in which success slips inexorably further away for an unlucky group that started out worse off? A group of researchers claims their findings suggest this is exactly what happens, so rosy views on the benefits of advanced societies must be reappraised as simplistic. “Powerless people often achieve less because lacking power itself fundamentally alters cognitive functioning,” wrote the scientists in a paper describing their research. The findings highlight the importance of “empowering” employees to stimulate better work, especially in industries where errors can be fatal, they added. The findings, by Pamela Smith of Radboud University in The Netherlands and three colleagues, appear in the May issue of the research journal Psychological Science. The researchers conducted three experiments with between 77 and 102 Dutch university students. They were put in different scenarios designed to make them feel either dominant or subordinate. This message of “rank” was conveyed either through subtle cues or direct statements, such as telling participants that they would be paired with a partner who would direct and evaluate their work. The participants were then subjected to puzzles or other thinking tests. The “powerless” players consistently displayed impairments in thinking process key to performance, such as planning, updating a mental picture and inhibiting irrelevant information, they wrote. The researchers argued that this dip in overall “executive function” among low-status people results from a loss of focus on overall goals. Consistent with this, they added, these players performed as well as others in a fourth experiment using a thinking game designed so that it would remain easy to focus on the task goal. The original performance deficits seemed not to result from a general loss of motivation—”low status” players reported putting in as much effort as others, the researchers said. Ultimately, they argued, low status may drain performance by forcing people to devote part of their thoughts to the uncertainties and threats that can arise from their superiors’ changing whims. A result is that the powerless narrow their focus to small-picture goals and to “details” that might not be relevant to the task. The findings “have direct implications for management and organizations,” Smith and colleagues wrote. In many industries such as healthcare and nuclear power, “errors can be costly, tipping the balance from life to death. Increasing employees’ sense of power could lead to improved executive functioning, decreasing the likelihood of catastrophic errors,” they continued. “Such empowerment might be particularly vital in jobs where it is difficult to maintain goal focus because critical situations are infrequent,” such as airport security and product-defect detection. In a larger sense, the findings suggest that differences in inherent ability, motivation, or discrimination aren’t the only factors separating the “haves and the have-nots,” Smith and colleagues wrote. “The cognitive impairments of being powerless may also be an important contributor, leading the powerless towards a destiny of dispossession.”