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Does Power Cause People to Lose Touch With Reality?

“Experience of power leads to an illusion of personal control and hubristic overconfidence. By producing an illusion of personal control, power may cause people to lose touch with reality in ways that lead to overconfident decision-making.”

Having a sense of control over the future has long been considered a fundamental motive and a highly adaptive trait for humans. It is well established that an absence of perceived control leads to depression, pessimism, and withdrawal from challenging situations. In contrast, possessing a general sense of control leads to self-esteem, optimism, and agency.

Three experiments demonstrated that the experience of power leads to an illusion of personal control. Regardless of whether power was experientially primed (Experiments 1 and 3) or manipulated through manager-subordinate roles (Experiment 2), it led to perceived control over outcomes that were beyond the reach of the powerholder. Furthermore, this illusory control mediated the influence of power on several self-enhancement and approach-related effects found in the power literature, including optimism (Experiment 2), self-esteem (Experiment 3), and action-orientation (Experiment 3), demonstrating its theoretical importance as a generative cause and driving force behind many of power’s far-reaching effects. A fourth experiment ruled out an alternative explanation: that positive mood, rather than illusory control, is at the root of power’s effects. The discussion considers implications for existing and future research on the psychology of power, perceived control, and positive illusions.

Some takeaways:

  • …feelings of control often stem from the possession of power, although this relationship has not been directly assessed. People with high socioeconomic status, members of dominant groups, and members of cultures that endorse the values of power and individual agency  are all more likely than others to believe they can control the future. Interestingly, these same people—the wealthy, the educated, the numerical majority, the individualistic—also tend to display more optimism, self-esteem, and action in pursuit of their goals
  • …these findings suggest that social power might expand one’s sense of personal control, even when the control is illusory, and, furthermore, that this elevated …sense of control could drive the approach and enhancement effects often displayed by powerholders.
  • …Illusory control is the belief that one has the ability to influence outcomes that are beyond one’s reach (e.g., perceived influence over outcomes that are largely determined by chance.
  • …are driven by an inflated sense of control that is activated by power.
  • …power led to perceived control over outcomes that were uncontrollable and/or unrelated to the participants’ power. Power predicted perceived control over a chance event, outcomes in domains that were unrelated to the source of power, and future outcomes that are virtually impossible for any one individual to control (e.g., performance of the national economy, national election results). Furthermore, this inflated sense of control mediated power’s positive effects on optimism, self-esteem, and action-orientation. A final experiment ruled out the effects of power on positive mood as an alternate explanation for these findings.

Conclusions

The present findings offer a number of important contributions. First, they advance research on the determinants of perceived control by revealing that illusory perceptions of control over outcomes are determined not only by chronic personality traits and cultural differences, but also by dynamic, situation-based power asymmetries. Second, they contribute to the power literature by indicating that perceptions of control in response to power are illusory, as well as realistic, and that this illusory sense of control is a basic response to the psychological experience of power. Finally, and perhaps most importantly, they provide evidence for why power leads to approach and self-enhancement effects: illusory control appears to be a generative cause and driving force behind a number of effects previously found to be associated with power, including action, optimism, and self-esteem. The present studies also help to shed light on why the powerful often seem to exhibit hubristic overconfidence.

By producing an illusion of personal control, power may cause people to lose touch with reality in ways that lead to overconfident decision-making. But we hasten to add that being fully grounded in—and constrained by—reality is not always desirable. As noted earlier, illusory control is often adaptive and, in some cases, can enhance performance

Read the Study

If you want to know more about power, see here. And read Power: Why some people have it and others don’t