Power Creates Psychological Distance

“Great power involves great responsibility.” — Franklin D. Roosevelt

Everyone wants to feel powerful—that’s human nature, and there’s nothing wrong with that. It’s why we gun for promotions and seek out advancement. It’s why anyone runs for political office. But once you get that power, it changes the way you think, perceive, and relate—and not always in good ways.

The tumultuous Supreme Court confirmation hearings for Brett Kavanaugh shined a bright light on both our nation’s divided politics and on how differently people view alleged victims. While some were quick to believe the allegations put forward by Dr. Christine Blasey Ford, others struggled to understand why someone who claimed to have experienced a sexual assault didn’t report the attack or seek justice sooner.

There are many complicated reasons for why Americans had vastly different takes on Dr. Ford, but one of those reasons is actually quite simple: power distorts perceptions. Bear with me.

Through decades of research we’ve learned that when people feel powerful, they become psychologically distanced from, well, everything. Power—typically defined as “asymmetric control of resources”—causes people to be less aware of details and less sensitive to other people’s experiences.

If you’re a person with some power, it’s likely difficult for you to accurately understand the perspectives of others and to imagine the lives of those in different situations. You will, instead, imagine how you would act, given your lifetime of experiences, rather than how the other person would act, given their lifetime experiences.

And this is not always a bad thing. It’s a necessary ability at times for leaders, such as when a general needs to send troops to war, or when lay-offs are inevitable in order to save a company.

But most of us will never be called on to send troops to war. And most of us don’t need to order lay-offs in day-to-day operations. The same power that provides a beneficial numbing effect during extreme leadership situations, can hinder a leader’s effectiveness when situations fall short of life-or-death, which is most of the time.

Looking again at the public response to the Kavanaugh hearings, science shows us that when people feel powerful, they don’t recognize the risks in a particular course of action as clearly as a less powerful person does. In experiments, once people were made to feel powerful they had a harder time even imaging the negative outcomes associated with acting in a situation. Conversely, people who lacked power had no problems naming all the negatives that would give them pause before acting or speaking out.

This is the real challenge for leaders. Leadership requires being able to be numb and get the job done at times, but more often it requires listening, empathizing and responding compassionately to those with less power.

Your good intentions won’t be enough to circumvent science. Simply being a leader will change how you think and perceive things, there’s no escaping that. But, if you’re aware of the impact power has on people and on interpersonal dynamics, you can use the beneficial numbing effect when you need it, and work to consciously offset it when you don’t.

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