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People feeling powerful don’t listen, study finds

Feb. 15, 2008
Courtesy Ohio State University
and World Science staff

Don’t both­er try­ing to per­suade your boss of a new idea while he’s feel­ing the pow­er of his po­si­tion, new re­search sug­gests—he’s not lis­ten­ing.

“Pow­er­ful peo­ple have con­fi­dence in what they are think­ing. Wheth­er their thoughts are pos­i­tive or neg­a­tive to­ward an idea, that po­si­tion is go­ing to be hard to change,” said Rich­ard Pet­ty, co-au­thor of the study and a psy­cholo­g­ist at Ohio State Uni­ver­s­ity.

Peo­ple tend to dis­re­gard new opin­ions when they are in the glow of pow­er, a study has found.


The best way to get lead­ers to con­sid­er new ide­as is to reach them when they don’t feel as pow­erful, the re­search sug­gests. 

Then “you have a bet­ter chance of get­ting them to pay at­ten­tion,” said Pa­blo Briñol, lead au­thor of the study and a so­cial psy­cholo­g­ist at the Uni­ver­si­dad Autónoma de Ma­drid in Spain.

The re­search ex­am­ined an is­sue largely ig­nored by so­cial sci­en­tists, Pet­ty said: many stud­ies have looked at how the pow­er of a per­son de­liv­er­ing a mes­sage af­fects re­cip­i­ents, but this one seems to be the first to as­sess how the lis­ten­er’s pow­er af­fects per­sua­sion.

In the studies, the in­ves­ti­ga­tors told col­lege stu­dents they would par­ti­ci­pate in two sup­posedly sep­a­rate ex­pe­ri­ments. 

In one, the stu­dents role-played in a game in which one acted as a boss, the oth­er as an em­ploy­ee. In the sec­ond ex­pe­ri­ment, the par­ti­ci­pants viewed a fake ad for a mo­bile phone. Half the view­ers saw ads with rath­er fee­ble ar­gu­ments for buy­ing the phone, such as its great cur­ren­cy con­vert­er; the oth­er half saw ads with strong ar­gu­ments, such as the quick five-minute re­charg­ing time.

When the role-play­ing took place be­fore the ad, those who played boss were more likely than the “em­ploy­ees” to rate the phone sim­i­lar­ly—re­gard­less of the ad type, Pet­ty and Briñol said. “The strength of the ar­gu­ment made no dif­fer­ence to those who played the boss. They ob­vi­ously weren’t pay­ing at­ten­tion when they felt pow­erful,” Pet­ty re­marked. “Those who played the em­ploy­ee, who were made to feel pow­erless, paid a lot more at­ten­tion to the ar­gu­ments. They weren’t as con­fi­dent in their own in­i­tial be­liefs and weighed the ar­gu­ments more care­ful­ly.”

In anoth­er stu­dy, the or­der of the ex­pe­ri­ments was re­versed. Par­ti­ci­pants first read the phone ads and wrote down their thoughts while read­ing. Then they played the role-play­ing game. Lat­er, they went back and rat­ed the phones. The role-play­ing “boss­es” were now more in­flu­enced by the qual­ity of the ar­gu­ments in the ads, the re­search­ers said, where­as the “em­ploy­ees” were less in­flu­enced.

“When pow­er was ex­perienced af­ter the ads had been pro­cessed, it gave peo­ple con­fi­dence in their most re­cent thoughts, so if they read strong ar­gu­ments, they rat­ed the phones more fa­vor­a­bly. If they read weak ar­gu­ments, they were much more neg­a­tive,” Pet­ty said.

How can an av­er­age per­son make use of the find­ings? Pet­ty sug­gests the fol­low­ing ex­am­ples: if you have good ar­gu­ments to get a raise, try not to ask the boss in her of­fice, amid the trap­pings of pow­er. Br­ing it up in a lunch room or some­where where there aren’t re­minders of who is in charge. But if you must talk in the boss’s of­fice, try to say some­thing that shakes his or her con­fi­dence. “Try to br­ing up some­thing that the boss does­n’t know, some­thing that makes him less cer­tain.”

But once you do make your ar­gu­ment—assuming it’s strong—it is good to re­mind the boss he’s in charge, Pet­ty added. That can lock in the re­sults. “You want to sow all your ar­gu­ments when the boss is not think­ing of his pow­er, and af­ter you make a good case, then re­mind your boss of his pow­er. Then he will be more con­fi­dent in his own evalua­t­ion of what you say,” Pet­ty said, al­though that will only work if he was ac­tu­ally won over in the first place.

Pet­ty said the re­search casts doubt on a clas­sic as­ser­tion that pow­er cor­rupts peo­ple and leads them to neg­a­tive ac­tions. In­stead, what pow­er does is make peo­ple more likely to un­ques­tionably be­lieve their own thoughts and act on them, he said.

Both low- and high-pow­er peo­ple may have neg­a­tive thoughts at times, he added, and think about do­ing bad things. But be­cause high-pow­er peo­ple are more con­fi­dent in their thoughts—and less open to coun­ter­ing views—they’re more likely to fol­low through in­to ac­tion, he said; but this can work for good ide­as as well as bad. The re­search was pub­lished in the De­cem­ber is­sue of the Jour­nal of Per­son­al­ity and So­cial Psy­chol­o­gy.


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Don’t bother trying to persuade your boss of a new idea while he’s feeling the power of his position, new research suggests—he’s not listening. “Powerful people have confidence in what they are thinking. Whether their thoughts are positive or negative toward an idea, that position is going to be hard to change,” said Richard Petty, co-author of the study and a psychologist at Ohio State University. The best way to get leaders to consider new ideas is to get to them when they don’t feel as powerful, the research suggests. Then “you have a better chance of getting them to pay attention,” said Pablo Briñol, lead author of the study and a social psychologist at the Universidad Autónoma de Madrid in Spain. The research examined an issue largely ignored by social scientists, Petty said. Many studies have looked at how the power of a person delivering a message affects recipients, but this seems to be the first to asses how the listener’s power affects persuasion. The investigators told college students they would be participating in two supposedly separate experiments. In one, the students role-played in a game in which one was a boss and the other an employee. In the second experiment, the participants viewed a fake ad for a mobile phone. Half the viewers saw ads with rather feeble arguments for buying the phone, such as its great currency converter; the other half saw ads with strong arguments, such as the quick five-minute recharging time. When the role-playing took place before the ad, those who played boss were more likely than the “employees” to rate the phone similarly—regardless of the ad, Petty and Briñol said. “The strength of the argument made no difference to those who played the boss. They obviously weren’t paying attention when they felt powerful,” Petty remarked. “Those who played the employee, who were made to feel powerless, paid a lot more attention to the arguments. They weren’t as confident in their own initial beliefs and weighed the arguments more carefully.” In another study, the order of the experiments was reversed. Participants first read the phone ads and wrote down their thoughts while reading. Then they played the role-playing game. Later, they went back and rated the phones. The role-playing “bosses” were now more influenced by the quality of the arguments in the ads, the researchers said, whereas the “employees” were less influenced. “When power was experienced after the ads had been processed, it gave people confidence in their most recent thoughts, so if they read strong arguments, they rated the phones more favorably. If they read weak arguments, they were much more negative toward the phone,” Petty said. How can an average person make use of the findings? Petty suggests the following examples: if you have good arguments to get a raise, try not to ask the boss in her office, amid the trappings of power. Bring it up in a lunch room or somewhere where there aren’t reminders of who is in charge. But if you must talk in the boss’s office, try to say something that shakes his or her confidence. “Try to bring up something that the boss doesn’t know, something that makes him less certain.” But once you do make your argument—assuming it’s strong—it is good to remind the boss he’s in charge, Petty added. That can lock in the results. “You want to sow all your arguments when the boss is not thinking of his power, and after you make a good case, then remind your boss of his power. Then he will be more confident in his own evaluation of what you say,” Petty said, although that will only work if he was actually won over in the first place. Petty said the research casts doubt on a classic assertion that power corrupts people and leads them to negative actions. Instead, what power does is make people more likely to unquestionably believe their own thoughts and act on them, he said. Both low- and high-power people may have negative thoughts at times, and think about doing something bad. But because high-power people are more confident in their thoughts – and less susceptible to countering views—they’re more likely to follow through into action. But this can work for good ideas as well as bad, Petty argued. The research was published in the December issue of the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology.