3 reasons why people in power are more likely to make bad decisions

AFR Magazine’s annual power issue, which ranks Australia’s most powerful people in politics, business and industry, always provides some interesting discussions.

This year, for the first time since it began in 2000, the Prime Minister has been pushed out of the top spot. Thanks to the pandemic, Scott Morrison is in second place, behind four state premieres (Daniel Andrews, Gladys Berejiklian, Mark McGowan and Annastacia Palaszczuk).

Third place goes to treasurer Josh Frydenberg, fourth to the country’s top health officials and fifth to reserve bank governor Philip Lowe. Former Secretary of State Brittany Higgins is in sixth place, followed by Deputy Prime Minister Barnaby Joyce, Commonwealth Bank chief Matt Comyn, opposition leader Anthony Albanese and Defense Secretary Peter Dutton.



Read more: Have our governments become too powerful under COVID-19?


There are subsidiaries for the most hidden powerful, the most culturally powerful, the most powerful in business and in sectors such as technology, education, real estate and consulting.

One thing the problem really lacks is a comprehensive assessment of the disadvantages of power. To put it simply, the feeling of power tends to hamper a person’s ability to make good decisions.

Research shows that having a formal position of authority with influence on people, resources and rewards is associated with cognitive and behavioral costs. People who feel powerful (either momentarily or consistently) make significantly lower estimates of the likelihood of negative outcomes. They are more likely to take risks both to make gains and avoid losses.

Feeling powerful makes us more prone to three patterns of behavior that increase the likelihood of making bad decisions: overestimating our own perspective; dismiss the expertise of others and fail to recognize limitations.

Those who feel powerful are more likely to overestimate their own perspective and reject advice from experts.
Those who feel powerful are more likely to overestimate their own perspective and reject advice from experts.
Ben Gray / AP

Do not see other perspectives

Taking the perspective of others is important in any leadership role. However, those who feel more powerful tend to overestimate their own perspective and discount the perspectives of others.

This has been demonstrated in behavioral experiments by social psychologist Adam Galinsky and colleagues.

The researchers evoked feelings of greater or lesser power in the participants by asking them to either remember a time when they had power over another, or a time when another had power over them. Others who were asked to do none of them formed the control group.

Participants were then asked to perform three different tests that measure their ability to see the perspective of others. One test, for example, required that the identified emotions be expressed by others. Those who were encouraged to remember to feel powerful were, on average, 6% less accurate than the control group. They were also less likely to detect dissatisfaction in e-mails compared to the group feeling less powerful.

Australian heads of state and territory with Prime Minister Scott Morrison at a press conference in the National Cabinet in Canberra, 11 December 2020. AFR's list of powers in 2021 has referred the Prime Minister to another position.
Australian heads of state and territory with Prime Minister Scott Morrison at a press conference in the National Cabinet in Canberra, 11 December 2020. AFR’s list of powers in 2021 has referred the Prime Minister to another position.
Mick Tsikas / AAP

Rejects expert advice

The feeling of power makes us more likely to reject expert advice. This effect has been measured by organizational behavioral researcher Leigh Tost and colleagues.

In their experiments, they used the same method as Galinsky and colleagues to make the participants feel more or less powerful. They then asked participants to estimate the weight of three people or guess the amount of money in three jars of coins.

After the first round of assessment, participants were given access to advice from people who had performed the tasks before. They were told whether these advisors were “experts” (with a strong track record) or beginners (with estimates that were just average).

Those who were encouraged to feel less powerful were more likely to listen to the advice of the experts. Those who felt more powerful were more likely to reject the expert and novice.

Participants also conducted a survey about their emotions during the task. The results from this element of the study show that those who felt more powerful had a greater sense of being in competition with others. The authors conclude that the rejection of advice from experts is associated with a desire to “maintain their social dominance”.

Does not recognize restrictions

The more powerful we feel, the more likely we are to pursue goals aggressively and fail to recognize limitations. This is because power means we are actually less limited. The powerful have more resources to do what they like and to tell others what to do.

Organizational researcher Jennifer Whitson and colleagues measured this trend in experiments in which participants were given nine facts that could prevent achieving a goal – such as “not much money to invest” – and nine facts that could help, such as “there is high demand”.

Those who felt powerful (again established using the method used by Galinsky and colleagues) were significantly less able to remember the limitations. The authors conclude “the powerful are more likely to act on their goals because the limitations that normally hinder action are less psychologically present for them”.

Refusing to acknowledge restrictions can sometimes be a helpful thing. Apple founder Steve Jobs, for example, was notorious for ignoring his engineers’ complaints that they could not do what he asked. There is a story that he threw an iPod in an aquarium to demonstrate that wasted space that enabled air pockets.

Apple co-founder Steve Jobs was a notorious taskmaster.
Paul Sakuma? AP

But such stubbornness is likely to lead to poor results, such a fate for Elizabeth Holmes, who modeled herself on Jobs and refused to accept her idea of ​​compact medical blood test equipment, could not be made to work. Now she is being convicted of fraud.



Read more: Theranos’ rise and fall: so many lessons in a drop of blood


These disadvantages of power are worth remembering at a time when listening to different views and following expert advice has never been more important. Our experience from the pandemic is that electricity is best distributed. We need leaders who understand that power corrupts and who are humble enough to listen.

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