Monday, May 14, 2012

It's lonely at the top: Power makes you mistrusting

It's lonely at the top
Power is desirable – it helps us achieve goals, frees us from many social constraints, and allows us to be ourselves. But having power isn’t all peaches and cream, it’s also lonely at the top. Perhaps Leonardo DiCaprio summed it up best when he said “I had better success meeting girls before Titanic... there wasn’t a perception of her talking to me for only one reason.” And it turns out this isn’t just Leo’s problem. According to recent research by Ena Inesi and colleagues, having power – as a manager, as the higher-paid spouse, or even as the babysitter – leads people to see favors by others as more selfishly motivated.

Across five different studies, Inesi and her colleagues found that power lead people to make cynical attributions about the intentions behind another person’s kind acts. When a worker brings coffee for a boss, the boss may think that the co-worker is just trying to get ahead. And it doesn’t end there – because people who are more powerful are more likely to make these cynical attributions, believing those with less power are only using favors as a way to climb to the top, they are also less thankful, less trusting, and less likely to reciprocate the kind act. Gratitude, trust, and reciprocation are the cornerstones of relationship development. Relationships are hard, and without being able to trust the other person and return their favors, relationships are not likely to last long. Indeed, Inesi found that people who earned more than their spouses were less committed to their relationships, and this lack of commitment was explained by their mistrust of their partners’ intentions – the higher paid spouses believed their partners’ favors were more likely to be bestowed in a self-serving manner.

As I read this article I wondered whether people who have more power are simply more mistrusting of others in general, or if this mistrust only occurs when powerful people receive favors. Well, it turns out that the mistrust of the powerful does seem to be limited to favors – in Inesi’s research, power had no effect on trusting another person when the person wasn’t being kind (not mean, just not kind), but when the person did a kind deed, those who were more powerful trusted the other person less. What a paradox power creates - favors are meant to help build relationships, but when people do favors for the powerful, they actually hurt the relationship-building process.

And the question that lingers with me is whether the powerful are right to be mistrusting? This research only focused on people’s beliefs about why another person did them a favor, and I’m left wondering about the reality of gift-giving to the powerful. Are people doing favors for the powerful in order to get themselves a leg-up? Likely so, at least some of the time. But getting coffee for the boss probably isn’t always a thinly veiled attempt to win the boss’s favor. Perhaps then, this cynical view of the world can lead people with power to miss out on sincere attempts at building social relationships.

The bottom line: Power influences not only how people act, but also how they view others’ actions. Power appears to come with some cynically-colored* glasses, and it just may be that one benefit to being less powerful is that you always know that a favor from someone else is just that – a favor.

Do you think the powerful are right to be mistrusting? What can we do to tease apart those favor-givers who are seeking some personal benefit and those who are truly generous?

The article:
Inesi, M., Gruenfeld, D., & Galinsky, A. (2012). How power corrupts relationships: Cynical attributions for others' generous acts Journal of Experimental Social Psychology DOI: 10.1016/j.jesp.2012.01.008

*Any idea what this color would be? 


  1. Interesting. Perhaps the lenses should be polarized, as this makes things crisper and less "soft"?

  2. How does one act generously to someone who is more powerful? Generosity in my mind means giving of what you have to someone who has less. Don't the powerful, by definition already have more? Is it ever generous to give to someone who has more than you? Besides, the "cynical perception" that comes with power is really just a rich person problem, isn't it? It's like celebrities who complain about their lack of privacy. It's really difficult to see this as an actual problem. Especially since the powerful are always capable of sharing their power and resources to a point where they are equals with others. I mean, if they really want to feel sincere generosity from others again.

    I'm just saying...

    Great Post!


    1. Thanks for your comments, Daniel. A few counterpoints - first, I do think we can be generous with people who have more than us. If I get my boss a coffee, or pick up my higher-earning spouse at the airport, are those not still favors that I'm doing for them? It seems to me to be particularly generous of someone who has less to give to someone who has more, since that act is likely costing them more. As for "cynical perceptions" being a rich person's problem... I do agree that it's a champagne problem to be concerned that those who are doing you favors are only trying to get ahead. BUT I don't think these people are necessarily complaining, this research is simply helping highlight an interesting phenomenon that occurs when there is a power differential.

      As always, thanks for reading!


  3. Strangely enough, I read the Mad Men posture post immediately before this one. I immediately wondered : Do the inherently mistrusting gain power because other people grant it to them? (i.e. can the complementary position finding referenced in the Mad Men post be generalized in the context of power in social interactions? Those with characteristics more strongly associated with power might tend to rise because others tend to supplicate in order to avoid conflict.) I'm also thinking of the observation by Jon Ronson that there's a ~4% incidence of psychopathy in CEOs, while the base population rate is ~1%.