Try A Little Powerlessness

Friday, February 06, 2009

By Wray Herbert

Self-control is one of our most cherished values. We applaud those with the discipline to regulate their appetites and actions, and we try hard to instill this virtue in our children. Think of the slogans: Just say no. Just do it. We celebrate the power of the mind to make hard choices and keep us on course.

But what if we can’t just do it? What if “it” is too difficult or our strategy for success is misguided? Is it possible that willpower might actually be an obstacle rather than a means to happiness and harmony? Can we have too much of a good thing?

Two Tufts University psychologists believe there may be some truth to this. Evan Apfelbaum and Samuel Sommers were intrigued by the notion that too much self-control may indeed have a downside—and that relinquishing some power might be paradoxically tonic, both for individuals and for society. They decided to test this idea in the laboratory.

They explored the virtue of powerlessness in the arena of race relations. They figured that well-intentioned people are careful—sometimes hyper-careful—not to say the wrong thing about race in a mixed-race group. Furthermore, they thought that such effortful self-control might actually cause both unease and dishonesty, which could in turn be misconstrued as racial prejudice.

To test this, they deliberately sapped the mental powers of a number of volunteers. This is not as diabolical as it sounds. They ran the volunteers through a series of computer-based mental exercises that are so challenging that they temporarily deplete the cognitive reserves needed for discipline. Once they had the volunteers in this compromised state of mind, they put them (and others not so depleted) into a social situation with the potential for racial tension. Here it is:

Each white volunteer is left alone in a room. A black man enters and asks if the volunteer will consent to a brief interview on the issue of how universities should guarantee racial diversity. This is ostensibly unrelated to the self-control experiment, but in fact that’s a ruse. The interviewer asks the volunteer to share any thoughts he might have on this “hot topic,” and the conversation is recorded.

It’s that simple, though sometimes the interviewer was white. Afterward, the volunteers rated the interaction for comfort, awkwardness, and enjoyment. In addition, independent judges—both black and white—analyzed the five-minute interactions, commenting on how cautious the volunteers were, how direct in their answers—and how racially prejudiced.

The results were provocative. As reported in the February issue of the journal Psychological Science, those who were mentally depleted—that is, those lacking discipline and self-control—found talking about race with a black man much more enjoyable than did those with their self-control intact. That’s presumably because they weren’t working so hard at monitoring and curbing what they said. What’s more, independent black observers found that the powerless volunteers were much more direct and authentic in conversation. And perhaps most striking, blacks saw the less inhibited whites as less prejudiced against blacks. In other words, relinquishing power over oneself appears to thwart over-thinking and “liberate” people for more authentic relationships.

Race relations is just one arena of life where a little powerlessness may go a long way. Self-reliance is so deeply ingrained in us that it pervades our work lives, our relationships and our health choices, so it’s a real challenge to accept that it might sometimes be a character flaw. But remember that the volunteers here were not only perceived as fairer, they themselves felt happier. One wonders where else we might be acting too smart for our own good?

For more insights into the quirks of human nature, visit “We’re Only Human” at Selections from the blog also appear regularly in the magazine Scientific American Mind and at

posted by Wray Herbert @ 12:18 PM


At 1:32 PM , Blogger Greg said...

Great piece! I already believed this, but it's great to see some solid research in this area.

At 6:58 PM , Blogger Barbara said...

Wow. I really like the idea that sometimes we are too careful around race matters. This notion fits well with my work on silent racism and well-meaning white people's efforts to hide it. This suppression keeps us from having those important conversations about race.

Check out my website at

Barbara Trepagnier

At 8:49 PM , Blogger mark said...

This is a cool article.

I think the idea of going with your gut has a similar effect and reason. When I think too much about something I tend to overlook the present and make more mistakes when I could have just said or done what felt right.

At 9:23 PM , Blogger Nate Ring said...

Fascinating study. I too am doing some research in the same area, although, I am using the ego-depletion model.

At 12:09 PM , Blogger Lilian Nattel said...

That's fascinating.

At 10:04 PM , Blogger Bryan Dierking said...

I have noticed similar effects while running with my high school cross country team; the athletes will begin the workout perceivably tense around their friends, but after seven miles in their Nikes, I have seen them reveal thoughts or express emotions with their teammates that they certainly wouldn't have before the run. I think that modifying the experiment in this article to analyze the effects of physical exertion in contrast to mental exertion before the racial encounter would produce some fun results. ;]