Delusions and Confidence

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

By Wray Herbert

Winston Churchill was exultant about war, which he once described as “glorious” and “delicious.” As England’s leader during the darkest days of World War II, he inspired a fearful nation with his almost delusional optimism and confidence in victory over Germany. Indeed, some historians have argued that a man of more realistic and sober judgment would have simply given up.

The wartime prime minister’s delusions of control may have been a symptom of his mental illness, but his exaggerated example raises some interesting questions about the normal connections among power and control and confidence. Does power in itself breed a false sense of control, a belief that we can shape events in impossible ways? And could illusory control in turn shape our confidence in ourselves and our optimism about the future?

Psychologists have been studying this dynamic. Stanford University’s Nathanael Fast and his colleagues ran a series of experiments to see if powerful people have a distorted notion of their own ability to shape events, including random events. Here’s an example of the work:

They asked volunteers to recall and write about a specific incident from their past where they had exerted power over someone else—or had been at the mercy of someone else. The idea was to prime either feelings of power or powerlessness. Then them gave each of the volunteers a standard six-sided die, and asked them to predict what number would come up. They could either watch as someone rolled the die, or they could choose to roll the die themselves. The actual prediction and outcome were irrelevant. What was important was the volunteers' choice to roll the die—an indicator of their belief that they actually control the outcome of a random event.

The idea was to see if those “in power” also felt they had control over life’s randomness. And they did. In fact, each and every volunteer primed for power—100 percent—opted to roll the die rather than sit by while someone else did the rolling. This is obviously irrational; no one can control fate. But feeling powerful created the illusion of being in control of fate. Only a fraction of the powerless volunteers insisted on rolling the die.

This is interesting in itself, but the psychologists want to take it a step further. People in power—the wealthy, the educated, those in the ruling majority party—tend to be more upbeat, to feel better about themselves than the powerless do. Does power itself shape these emotions, or is it the illusion of control that comes with power? To find out, the scientists again primed volunteers’ thoughts of power and impotence—this time my assigning some to the role of manager and others to the role of worker. Then they read a short vignette about a company, and answered a series of questions about the company’s prospects and their part in the company’s future.

The results were clear. As reported in the March issue of the journal Psychological Science, those in power felt that they had more control over the fictional company’s success or failure—and they were much more optimistic about the company in general. What’s more, it was the perception of control that triggered the feelings of optimism. That is, the illusion of control was the link between feelings of power and upbeat emotions.They ran another similar study, and found that perceived control also boosted volunteers’ self-esteem.

Keep in mind that the scientists were measuring perceptions, not reality. Power creates the illusion of control, which in turn leads to good feelings. Is this a good thing? It depends. It can lead some to take insane risks, to bet on markets and relationships with no possible future. In those cases, the psychologists say, power creates its own unraveling. Or it can let others dream the unimaginable—and to pursue noble goals against seemingly impossible odds.

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

posted by Wray Herbert @ 3:24 PM


At 9:32 PM , Blogger Obed said...

No arguement here. Effective leadership teaches you to show your team a problem that needs fixing, give them the flexibility to use their unique talents to the best of their abilities and revel in the unique and creative ways they arrive at solutions.

At 12:25 AM , Blogger Ashley said...

Once again, an interesting concept that one may not stop to consider. I myself have had powerful positions in my life, and with those positions came confidence and as you said, "upbeat emotions." I feel that they all feed on each other. You have to have good feelings and confidence to achieve a level of high power, but you also get the confidence and feeling of control with the power. It seems to be one big circle. I was already somewhat confident with my abilities before i got into "power", but once i achieved that position, it just fueled the fire. I didnt feel invincible or like i could change ANYTHING, but I felt like i could at least try and hope that i could make changes. My level of optimism raised, but not to a dangerous level.