May 15 , 2008
For Immediate Release

Contact: Catherine West
(202) 293-9300
cwest@psychologicalscience.org

Having less power impairs the mind and ability to get ahead, study shows

Evanston, Ill. (May 15, 2008) -- New research appearing in the May issue of Psychological Science, a journal of the Association for Psychological Science, suggests that being put in a low-power role may impair a person’s basic cognitive functioning and thus, their ability to get ahead.

In their article, Pamela Smith of Radboud University Nijmegen, and colleagues Nils B. Jostmann of VU University Amsterdam, Adam Galinsky of the Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University, and Wilco W. van Dijk of VU University Amsterdam, focus on a set of cognitive processes called executive functions. Executive functions help people maintain and pursue their goals in difficult, distracting situations. The researchers found that lacking power impaired people’s ability to keep track of ever-changing information, to parse out irrelevant information, and to successfully plan ahead to achieve their goals.

In one experiment, the participants completed a Stroop task, a common psychological test designed to exercise executive functions. Participants who had earlier been randomly assigned to a low-power group made more errors in the Stroop task than those who had been assigned to a high-power group. Smith and colleagues also found that these results were not due to low-power people being less motivated or putting in less effort. Instead, those lacking in power had difficulty maintaining a focus on their current goal.

In another experiment, participants were asked to move an arrangement of disks from a start position to a final position in as few moves as possible, known to researchers as the Tower-of-Hanoi task. This task tests the more complex ability of planning. In some trials there was a catch: participants had to move the first disk in a direction that was opposite to its final position. Low power participants made more errors and required more moves on these trials, demonstrating poor planning.

Smith and colleagues believe their results have “direct implications for management and organizations.” In high-risk industries such as health care, a single employee error can have fatal consequences. Empowering these employees could reduce the likelihood of such errors. Additionally, their work illustrates how hierarchies perpetuate themselves. By randomly assigning individuals to high and low-power conditions, they demonstrate that simply lacking power can automatically lead to performance that reinforces one’s low standing, sending the powerless towards a destiny of dispossession.

Author Contacts: Pamela K. Smith P.Smith@psych.ru.nl Adam Galinsky Agalinsky@kellogg.northwestern.edu

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Psychological Science is ranked among the top 10 general psychology journals for impact by the Institute for Scientific Information. For a copy of the article “Lacking Power Impairs Executive Functions” and access to other Psychological Science research findings, please contact Catherine West at (202) 293-9300 x131 or cwest@psychologicalscience.org.

The Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University was founded in 1908 and is widely recognized as a global leader in management education. The school, located just outside of Chicago, is home to a renowned, research-based faculty and MBA students from around the globe. The Kellogg School’s academic portfolio includes the Full-Time, Part-Time and Executive MBA Programs and the nondegree Executive Education Program. The school offers three joint-degree programs: the JD-MBA, MD-MBA and the Master of Management and Manufacturing (MBA-MEM). Additionally, the Kellogg School of Management offers an Executive MBA Program in Miami and has alliances with business schools in Europe, Asia, the Middle East and Canada. To learn more, visit www.kellogg.northwestern.edu.