Sunday, October 20, 2013

The blindness of power

This paper explains a lot of bosses I have had.  It is a study of the phenomenon of self-anchoring and how it increases for people in positions of power. It makes them blind to the thoughts and feelings of those around them.

Self-anchoring is something you have probably experienced personally, both in yourself and in others around you.  None of us can truly know what is going on in someone else’s head, so we have to make the best guess that we can.  And since the person we know the best is our self, our estimate of what the other person is thinking is based largely on our prediction of what we would be thinking if we were in their shoes.  This makes some sense logically, especially if the other person is similar to us – perhaps in our family or a co-worker or a friend.  I have blogged about this before as it relates to our mirror neurons.

What makes this paper interesting is that they focused on people in positions of power.  Not even very much power - they just interviewed college students about their relationships with their peers and categorized them as high or low peer-influence based on their answers.  Then they had them go through various activities that required the students to judge the thoughts, opinions, and emotions of other people.  The study found that students who generally exert more influence over their peers are worse at estimating what other people are thinking.  These students have much more self-anchoring - basing their judgment of others on what they themselves would think in that situation.  They unconsciously assume that everyone else thinks the same way that they do. 

The study used several variations and found the same result pretty consistently.  In the first study, the powerful people were asked to assess the personality traits of other people.  Their answers showed that they classified these other people using descriptions of their own traits.  Students who were in the low-influence category didn't.  In the second study, the powerful people estimated the consensus of a group, and assumed the group agreed with them much more than they really did.  Again, low-influence students did not.  In the third study, the powerful people were asked to assess the emotions of people in photos who had vague facial expressions. The emotions they guessed were largely based on the emotion that the powerful person was feeling at the time. Their bias was much greater than that exhibited by the low-influence students doing the same thing.

So does this remind you of powerful people you know?  A domineering boss.  I parent who "wears the pants" in the family?  An older sibling?  A friend that likes to make decisions for the group?  It is often not that they are trying to force their opinions on you.  In part it is just blindness - they really think you agree with them.  You really want to see "that" movie, have "that" for dinner.  You really have bought into the new company policy.