February 13, 2008
Jon Schwarz draws our attention to this Washington Post article describing the results of a psychological experiment conducted by the Northwestern University's Kellogg School of Management that demonstrates that people who feel powerful are less adept at empathy and comprehending alternative viewpoints.
Across four experiments we found that power was associated with a reduced tendency to comprehend how others see the world, how others think about the world, and how others feel about the world. Priming power led participants to be less likely to spontaneously adopt another’s visual perspective, less likely to take into account that another person did not possess their privileged knowledge, and less accurate in detecting the emotional states of others.In other news, fish don't live in trees.
While the WashPo article oversells the results just a tad (as usual with psychological studies, it involves a laughably small sample size, with participants entirely chosen from the student body) and Mr Schwarz broadens the interpretation to cover all cognitive abilities rather than just social skills, it is interesting to see some research suggesting that placing people in postions of power diminishes their ability to make sensible decisions. It would be nice to see experiments designed to test the effect of the power mindset on more general intellectual skills such as risk assessment, factual analysis and basic reasoning, although I won't hold my breath waiting to see such research conducted by a business management school. Like Mr Schwarz, I think this question of whether power makes people stupid has been comprehensively answered by world events, but a barrage of psychological test results might help enlighten those unfortunate enough to prefer social science to history, a matter of some importance while almost all governments on Earth are, at best, elected monarchies or oligarchies laughably described as democracies.
I can understand why those who believe that the powerful are intellectually superior to the rest of us would favour systems of hierarchical authority†, but I've never been able to comprehend why anti-elitists who nevertheless hold that the mass of humanity are incapable of governing themselves ("Chaos!") think the situation could be improved by picking a section of humanity to govern everyone else. Scientific proof (well, OK, social-scientific proof) that power makes you stupider might be the key to persuading these people that systems of devolved egalitarian political authority might be better. Unless their problem is they just can't be arsed to be runnin' t'ings. It's pretty much mine, after all.
† Simmias: The senate is furious over your ideas for a Utopian state.
Allen: I guess I should never have suggested having a philosopher-king.
Simmias: Especially when you kept pointing to yourself and clearing your throat.