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.

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:

1. 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.

2. 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.”

3. 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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7 Responses to “Feeling Powerful Makes You Think Better”

  1. anniempaul says:

    A note sent to me by reader Joye Norris:

    As I read the information on assuming an “expansive posture,” I was thinking how gender skewed it is. I see that particular posture as a typical male taking up too much space. We ladies don’t. Of course, this observation might support Sheryl Sandberg’s theories of why women have yet to truly crack that glass ceiling. Except that instead of expanding, she is suggesting that women “lean in” . . .

  2. Amy Cuddy has a Ted Talk on this same topic of power postures making pretty much the same points, but it’s visual. It seems unreal to me, but what can you lose by giving it a try, whether you’re leaning in or out,trying to have it all, moving into a leadership from a management position, giving a speech to a big audience, or preparing for a difficult conversation? Cuddy says it only takes 2 minutes. The question I ask is, if it works, how long does the effect last?

  3. Uzma says:

    Fear exists only in our mind. Once we have built/nurtured self-confidence we can achieve anything :)

  4. >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?

    Not so sure about this – it depends on what you mean by “sharper.” It seems like leaders often have more focus, and perhaps more ruthlessness, and perhaps in many cases even a willingness to cut ethical or other corners (e.g., stint their family responsibilities). Is that what you mean by sharper? If you are talking about basic cognition or analytical skills, I’m not sure if that’s right. Sure, many leaders are smart but they are often far from the smartest in their fields.

  5. [...] I’m turning into a big fan of Annie Murphy Paul’s Brilliant Blog. The advice in this article on thinking more effectively by locating your centers of power nicely complements The 7 Secrets of the Prolific’s thesis that procrastination is caused by disempowerment. I particularly like Paul’s advice to find a role in which you feel powerful (as opposed to struggling for your power in a role that’s not a good fit), and to pay attention to your posture and physical bearing, as some postures help you feel empowered while others disempower you. [...]

  6. Joye Norris says:

    One of the potential outcomes from using a learner centered, dialogue approach to teaching is the learner feeling listened to, respected, and important. That learner is involved in communicating with others, analyzing situations, making decisions, etc. So it makes sense that as the learner increases his or her sense of power, thinking also improves. Yet another reason to move away from so much lecture and into teaching that supports and enhances personal power. It creates better thinkers!

  7. Ruchi says:

    Quiet an insightful post. Thank you Annie.
    Pondering why did Sheryl Sandberg call her Book “Lean In”
    Why not ” Lean Out ” ? :-D

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