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The Effects of Power on Decision Making

Being in a position of power can help people make better decisions about complex problems.

(originally published by Booz & Company)

Powerful People Make Good Decisions Even When They Consciously Think
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Pamela K. Smith, Ap Dijksterhuis, and Daniel H.J. Wigboldus

Psychological Science, vol. 19, no. 12

Date Published: 
December 2008

Can being in a position of power help a person make better decisions? Through a series of experiments, the authors of this paper examined how power, conscious and unconscious thought, and decision making relate to one another. Previous research has shown that unconscious thought can play an important role in problem solving. For example, people who are able to file away a problem and think about it unconsciously while working on something else often make quick and confident judgments, whereas people who are too focused on the details of the problem may weigh every alternative but be unable to see the big picture. In this study, one group of undergraduates was asked to imagine a situation in which they were in a position of power, and a second group was asked to imagine a time when someone else had command over them. After provoking feelings of power or powerlessness, the researchers gave individuals in each group a complex task to complete. Some participants were asked to focus solely on the task for four minutes, and the rest were given an unrelated distraction task for those same four minutes. Participants in the low-power group performed better after completing the distraction task than they did after concentrating on the task itself. But those in the high-power group performed well in both conditions. The authors suggest that people in a position of power feel more equipped to make decisions and therefore tend to think more abstractly about complex questions. 
Bottom Line:
Being in a position of power can help people make better decisions about complex problems. 
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