The Power to Push the Limit



  • Powerful people more often focus on potential advantages than negative consequences
  • Decisiveness can be beneficial because it inspires innovative new ways of thinking
  • The powerful sometimes cross the line into unethical territory because of their disregard for social norms

Conventional wisdom and common adages suggest that power is a quality that has the potential to be both positive and negative: “With great power comes great responsibility.” “Knowledge is power.” “Absolute power corrupts absolutely.”

Whether it is used as a force for good or evil, a sense of power inspires a drive to act. Powerful people are more likely to take hits at the blackjack table, make risky business moves, and even make spur-of-the-moment decisions to help someone in trouble. According to working research by Jennifer Whitson, the powerful are inclined to take decisive action because they focus on potential advantages and are less likely to consider negative consequences.

“Pretty much any kind of action-based task you put in front of them, they’re much more likely to do,” says Whitson, assistant professor of management at the McCombs School of Business.

While this level of decisiveness can be a driver of success, it can also create problems when the action is misguided or if it violates social taboos.

“You’ve got those classic stories of hubris, of the powerful who overreach,” Whitson says. “But at the same time, you get those stories of the powerful who act before anyone else does. What I look at particularly is, why does that happen? What is causing them to do this?”

Ignoring the Negatives

Donald Trump may not be the perfect model of the typical business leader, but few would dispute the extent to which his confidence guides his decisions. In the first season of his reality show, The Apprentice, contestants competed for the opportunity to manage the construction of the Trump International Hotel and Tower in Chicago. But throughout the production of the show, the tower was still in the early development phase and was not yet a done deal.

“Trump didn’t even have clearance to build that tower yet,” Whitson says. “It was that incredible confidence. He didn’t have all his ducks in a row yet, but he acted — and it worked out for him.”

While Trump is on the extreme end of the confidence spectrum, the same principle also applies to regular people in everyday life, Whitson says.

Whitson and her colleagues conducted experiments to determine the effects of power on decision-making in different scenarios. Following the lead of prior research in this area, they gave participants in each exercise different sets of instructions called power primes. One group was prompted to recall a time in their own life in which they had control over another person (the high-power prime), and the other was asked to think of a time in which someone else had control over them (the low-power prime).

In one exercise, researchers asked the subjects to describe how they would go about starting a business, presenting each of them with a list of 18 factors to consider in their planning: nine advantages, and nine potential constraints. Later, when asked to recall all the positive and negative considerations from the list, the two groups displayed a distinct split.

“We found that the powerless remember equal numbers of advantages and constraints, and the powerful people remember significantly fewer constraints,” Whitson says. “They don’t remember them, they don’t prepare for them, and they don’t even imagine them.”

Advantages to Forging Onward

People who engage in this kind of positive, proactive decision making tend to embrace high-risk, high-reward scenarios, Whitson says. This can pay off big time in environments when confidence is king, such as negotiations, mergers, and other high-pressure situations that require pragmatic problem-solving skills.

Powerful people are also more likely to spring into action in moments of crisis. To find this Whitson and her colleagues took a classic experiment one step further. In the original study, known as the Darley and Latane ladder study, participants were placed in a room within earshot of a nearby staged accident; half the participants were alone, the other half with another person paid not to respond to the accident sounds. This study found that more people responded to the accident when alone than with someone else who didn’t help.

Whitson introduced power to the equation. After being given either a high- or low-power prime, each participant was placed in a room with an accomplice to the study. The researchers then staged an accident just outside the room, allowing participants to hear a ladder falling followed by cries of pain. They observed that 75 percent of the high-power subjects resisted pressure not to act and ran out to help the “victim,” compared to just 25 percent of the low-power group.

The original study concluded that the presence of a peer who did not react made participants less likely to respond themselves. But in Whitson’s study, many of the powerful people didn’t even look at the confederate before rushing out to assist.

“They didn’t even check in. They just said, ‘Oh, somebody’s in trouble!’ and they were out of that room,” Whitson says.

The instinct to blaze a new path is a quality shared by many of history’s great innovators who dared to challenge the status quo, Whitson says. Copernicus and Galileo, for example, disputed the widely held belief that the sun revolves around the earth, pressing on with their new model despite nearly universal opposition.

“Unless you ignore all the classic norms, you’re not going to forge new ground, and you’re not going to adapt to new circumstances — so it’s an incredibly useful aspect that the powerful have,” Whitson says.

“But at the same time, some of those social norms, like those about justice, equality, respect of personal space, etc., are there for a reason. So it can be problematic, too.”

Downsides to Decisiveness

The inclination to soldier onward without pausing to consider potential downsides can be a risky and even dangerous behavior. In addition to taking big personal and professional risks, powerful decision-makers sometimes cross the line into unethical or immoral territory. One prior study, for example, found that people with high power were less likely to be aware that their inappropriate behavior might be considered sexual harassment.

In the real world of business, powerful leaders are often shielded from severe repercussions for making big gambles, Whitson says. For example, many organizations have mechanisms in place to warn executives about potential obstacles, and, in the event of failure, they have the resources to right the ship.

“There are lots of ways that information is channeled to the powerful in order to warn them of these things,” Whitson says. “If you are a very high-powered person, unless you are making a truly big bet, if it goes wrong, you will recover and keep going.”


Editor's note: This research has now been published in the October 2012 issue of the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, in an article titled The blind leading: Power reduces awareness of constraints.


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Faculty in this Article

Jennifer Whitson

Assistant Professor of Management McCombs School of Business

Jennifer Whitson received her Ph.D. from Northwestern University in Management and Organizations, and her B.A. from the University of California,...

About The Author

Rob Heidrick

Writer, McCombs School of Business

Born and raised in Austin, writer Rob Heidrick has spent several years as a contributor and editor at local magazines and community newspapers. He...

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