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A New Look at Power

[4/17/10]

In a recent study, Dr. Adam Galinsky from Northwestern University conducted an experiment that could potentially start a revolutionary way to how we view power and those in powerful positions.

In the experiment, subjects were divided into two samples. One sample of individuals was asked to describe a “high-power” incident where the individual held a position of power. The other sample described a time when someone else had taken a powerful position over them, thus putting them in the inferior, “low-power” spot. Soon after, each subject was asked to draw the letter e on his or her forehead.

There were two ways of drawing the letter. The subject could draw the e backwards, so that it was forwards to only himself. Or he could draw it forwards so that someone looking at him would be able to read the letter correctly.

The profound results? Individuals who described taking on a position of high power were three times more likely than their counterparts to draw the e backwards (so that only they could read the letter). In other words, those in the “high-power” sample were three times more likely to have backward e’s on their foreheads at the end of the experiment.

Those in the “high-power” sample were less inclined to see things from a different perspective. After talking about themselves in situations of power, they were stuck to viewing things from only one perspective—theirs. What can this say about people in power? Probably not much because of how basic the study was.

However, the study brings a new question into the spotlight. Does power cause people to make more rash decisions? By theory, according to Galinsky’s study, people in power tend to stick to their own perspectives. Could this inclination cause people to act more impulsively and less fairly?

Psychology professor Philip Zimbardo’s 1971 Stanford prison experiment answers the affirmative to this question. This rare study used role-playing and the principles of power to demonstrate how one’s morality could go astray while in the seat of command. In a makeshift prison at the university, nine college students—middle class, Caucasian, and male—were assigned to play the inferior role of prisoners, while another nine males, under the same criteria as their counterparts, played the superior, powerful position of the prison guards. Within a day, the latter nine average students molded into vile prison guards who humiliated and abused their prisoners. A couple “prisoners” even became traumatized, estranged individuals who no longer wanted to cooperate. The six-day study had to be terminated eight days earlier than planned because of the detrimental authority that the “prison guards” were taking on and misusing.

It would be very difficult to completely repeat Zimbardo’s experiment. (Recent experiment regulations would additionally prevent many of the events that took place in the 1971 prison.) But in the study, the people in power were shown to act more impulsively and less fairly. The prison guards gradually learned to disregard the prisoners’ sentiments. They enforced punishments, such as extreme exercise, decrease in sanitary conditions, the removal of sleeping mattresses, and other forms of degradation. The prisoners became mere abstractions that needed to be dealt with. It was noted that many of the guards were regretful upon hearing that the study would be concluded early.

The guards learned to act solely from their own perspective. Had Galinsky brought his experiment to Zimbardo’s prison study, the former would probably have discovered that all of the prison guards wrote the letter e backwards on their foreheads. I imagine that the six-day experience with absolute power would temporarily change these college students so much that they would not even consider an opposite view.

Zimbardo’s study altogether portrayed the human race in a very bad light. But other factors must be taken into account. The prison guard college students were assigned to authoritative roles that were meant to be abusive and overbearing. Most positions of power are not meant to be so. Most positions also often have other seats of command that are either just inferior or equal to them. There are normally other individuals present to hold back one’s power. (For example, the US president has a vice-president, secretaries of state, and others to ensure that he does not misuse his power.)

In addition, the prison study only used one race and gender. Could the results have been different if all of the participants were of a different single race? Could a different culture’s values and beliefs have caused the study to end with a different outcome?

What if all of the participants were female? Women have rarely been found to misuse power. After all, it was just a month ago that the world unearthed the first female to be convicted of genocide. (Pauline Nyiramasuhuko, former Minister of Women’s Development, allegedly partook in the 1994 Rwanda genocide.)

I also wonder how the experiment would have turned out in a setting of multiple ethnic groups and both genders. If every prison guard was of a different ethnicity, would there have been less “teaming up” and more cooperation or vice versa?

At the macroscopic level, it would be impossible to sift through and find all of the powerful people who are influenced into seeing things from namely only their view and those who are more open to others’ perspectives. (You cannot make everyone draw an e on his or her forehead.) Nonetheless, keeping in mind the experiments carried out by Zimbardo and Galinsky can help people evaluate their leaders and decide if the latter is giving fair, moral treatment to all. From a leader’s point of view, both experiments show that power, as great as it can be, must be used with caution and care.

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