March 2012 - A recent study sheds light on how power can fuel the overconfidence that causes people in leadership positions
to make bad decisions.
The study was conducted by USC Marshall assistant professor of management and organization. Nathanael Fast and co-authors,
Niro Sivanathan of London Business School, Nicole D. Mayer of the University of Illinois, Chicago, and Adam Galinsky of the Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University
The researchers point to a fundamental truth in the world of business: unconstrained power can hinder decision-making. It is a truism that
can be extended to political leaders as well.
According to Nathanael Fast:
"The aim of this research was to help power holders become conscious of one of the pitfalls leaders often fall prey to,
The overall sense of control that comes with power tends to make people feel overconfident in their ability to make good decisions."
The researchers conducted a number of experiments to explore this tendency. In one experiment, subjects were asked to bet money on
the accuracy of their own knowledge. But first, participants were put in touch with feelings of either power or powerlessness by being asked to
recall and write down accounts in some detail of a specific experience when they either had, or did not have, power over other people.
Then the subjects were asked to answer six factual questions and to set a "confidence boundary" on how well they thought they had performed.
Nathanel Fast commented:
"What we found across the studies is that power leads to over-precision, which is the tendency to overestimate the accuracy
of personal knowledge."
The study found that subjects who were primed to feel powerful actually lost money betting on their knowledge while, those who
did not feel powerful made less risky bets and did not lose money.
According to Nathanel Fast:
"This was one piece of puzzle, the idea that a subjective feeling of power leads to over-precision."
The research team hypothesized that overconfidence among high-power individuals could be limited
through blocking their subjective sense of power by directing attention to the limits of their personal competence.
They tested this by allocating subjects to high-power or low-power roles. But
subjects' feelings of competence were also manipulated by asking them a series of yes/no "leadership aptitude" questions.
The subjects were then randomly given a false score - ranging from "poor" to "excellent" - through a computer and
told that their scores reflected their aptitude for leadership. Participants with "low" scores were advised that they "may not be as competent as others."
After being given their results, the subjects were asked to bet money on how well they would answer six trivia questions.
Yet again, the 'powerful' subjects lost more money but participants who had been led to doubt their own
competence did not. Put another way, when subjects felt subjectively powerful they were at their most most vulnerable to overconfident decision-making.
Nathanael Fast considers that the best decision-makers can find ways to avoid this vulnerabity:
"The most effective leaders bring people around them who critique them.
As a power holder, the smartest thing you might ever do is bring people together who will inspect your thinking and who aren't afraid to
challenge your ideas." But, ironically, the study shows that the more powerful they become, the less help leaders think they need.
Adam Galinsky concluded:
"Power is an elixir, a self-esteem enhancing drug that surges through the brain telling you how great your ideas are. This leaves the powerful vulnerable to making overconfident decisions that lead them to dead-end alleys."
"Power and Overconfident Decision-making" by Nathanael Fast, Niro Sivanathan,
Nicole D. Mayer and Adam Galinsky is in press at Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes.
When individuals are faced with making a choice that could result in
short-term reward or longer-term benefit, those provided with complete information about the options tend to opt for
the quick result.
Electrophysiological evidence that decisions thought to be based on guesswork or gut feelings may actually draw on valid memories that cannot be consciously accessed.
Research has shed new light on "gut feelings" arguing that they are real psychological
phenomena that should be taken seriously.
While we tend to believe that we are capable of forming independent opinions, what other people think can
influence our conclusions, with negative attitudes resulting in the biggest changes.
Longing for something intensely (like a holiday or food) can
change an individual's choice making processes with a wider array of options considered than would normally be
Research sheds new light on the mental processes involved in "counterfactual
thinking" in which past decisions are reviewed and alternatives evaluated.
A new consensus that scientists are reaching on the origins and
mechanisms of morality.