The Psychology of Political Power

While a “team of rivals” approach to White House advisers may indeed be what the country needs, scientists who study the decision-making of people in power know that surrounding yourself with competing voices is no guarantee that wise actions will follow. W.’s team of rivals— in this week’s magazinepower can insulate a leader from being influenced, for it creates a psychological environment that makes them more likely to rely on their own beliefs, values and goals.

The latest evidence for this comes in a series of experiments measuring the effects of power and, specifically, whether it shields people from influence. Although this was a somewhat artificial—that is, lab-based—situation, it rings true. The scientists, led by Adam Galinsky of the Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University, tested the effects of peer pressure and conformity, they report in the December issue of the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology.

One experiment had volunteers complete an exercise that most of them disliked. But when shown a feedback form indicating (falsely) that other participants had enjoyed the task, volunteers put in a position of low-power changed their minds, deciding that it wasn’t so bad after all. In contrast, volunteers in a position of high power expressed their honest dislike of the task, unswayed by the favorable opinions of others. The views of the powerful, one scientist said, “do not change with the wind.” Of course, if “wind” includes things like evidence that the reason you invaded a country was fallacious, then you have stubborn leaders who refuse to admit their mistakes.

Powerful people, said Galinsky, are “more likely to express attitudes that don’t necessarily conform to prevailing peer pressure, and be more willing to counter with opposing views or statements in a discussion or argument.” Expect lots of armchair psychologizing in the coming years about why the current occupant of the White House apparently bent so willingly to the views of those around him, especially Cheney, as detailed in Barton Gellman’s magisterial “Angler.”

As for the next president, the findings suggest that Obama’s resounding victory, and the Democrats’ control of Congress, might enable him to stick to his vision. “Although power is often thought of as a pernicious force that corrupts people who possess it, it is the protection from situational influence that helps powerful individuals surmount social obstacles and express the seemingly unpopular ideas of today that transform into the ideals of tomorrow,” Galinsky said.