As we approach inauguration day, many people are wondering about how President-elect Donald Trump will govern. A prevailing question is whether Trump will enact the policies of his candidacy or whether occupying the presidency will lead him to deviate from some of his most radical positions on immigration, free trade, and foreign policy. Some of Trump’s cabinet selections have signaled that he is willing to have a diverse group of people around him. Selections such as James Mattis (Secretary of Defense) and Elaine Chao (Secretary of Transportation) have a wealth of experience, while others such as Rex Tillerson (Secretary of State) and Andrew Puzder (Secretary of Labor) have limited experience in government.
This could enable Trump to foster healthy debates within his cabinet, and allow him to listen to those who come to the table with different perspectives. After all, to quote one of America's greatest superheroes, "With great power comes great responsibility," and Trump is now the embodiment of America's most cherished values both at home and overseas. Furthermore, the United States has a system of checks and balances that prevents individuals from being unaccountable, and the Trump asserts that he will uphold the Constitution.
It is important to note however that when we look at existing research on the topic of power in the behavioral sciences, research is conclusive: power reveals individuals' true intentions and leads to them being less willing to take others’ perspectives. Existing research has shown that holding power activates the behavioral approach system, leading individuals to pursue rewards, take action more quickly, and fail to recognize obstacles as they try to achieve their goals. In a series of experiments published in Psychological Science, Adam Galinsky (Columbia Business School), Joe Magee (New York University), Ena Inesi (London Business School) and Deborah Gruenfeld (Stanford University) have shown that power can reduce perspective-taking as individuals who experience power are less likely to comprehend how others think, see, and feel.
To foster a sense of power in these studies, they randomly assigned participants to one of two conditions: participants either wrote about a time in which they had power over another individual or individuals (i.e., high power condition), whereas those in the control condition, participants wrote about what they did the previous day. After having participants write about one of these situations, they were instructed to complete an ostensibly unrelated task, but it actually involved pictures of faces that expressed different emotions, such as happiness, sadness, anger or fear. The results were impressive: those assigned to the high power condition were more likely to make errors in judging the emotional expressions than those in the control condition. Similar results were found in additional studies, demonstrating that when individuals felt a sense of power, they were more likely to anchor on their own viewpoints and less likely to take others’ perspectives.
Similarly, research by Nathan Fast at the University of Southern California and his colleagues demonstrate that power can contribute to an illusion of control, resulting in those in positions of power believing that they have influence over outcomes that are largely subject to random chance. In one study in their paper published in Psychological Science, participants were randomly assigned to either the high power or baseline condition using a similar recall method. They were then asked about whether they would vote in an upcoming election, and asked the extent to which they believed their vote could help influence the national election, as well as other issues in society such as the economy. The results showed that participants in the high-power condition were more likely to have a sense of control over these areas relative to those in the baseline condition.
Beyond perspective taking and illusory control, my former colleague, Leigh Tost at the University of Southern California (in collaboration with Francesca Gino at Harvard Business School and Rick Larrick at Duke University) ran a series of studies published in Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes showing that a greater sense of power leads individuals to discount advice from both experts and novices. As part of their research, they asked participants in a study to do a weight estimation task and gave them an opportunity to receive advice from an advisor who had either performed very well (i.e., expert advisor) or performed at an average level (i.e., novice advisor) previously in the same type of task.
They found that individuals who experienced a greater sense of power were more likely to ignore advice compared to those who experienced less power. Furthermore, participants in the high power condition did not adjust the weight of the advice they received based on the expertise of the advisor. When individuals with high power received advice from experts, they ignored the advice on 56 percent of their judgments relative to low power individuals who ignored the advice only 6.7 percent of the time.
Why? They found that individuals who experienced greater power were more likely to feel competitive when they received advice from experts, leading them to have greater confidence and reduced advice-taking. Interestingly, individuals who had a greater sense of power did not experience the same boost in competitiveness or confidence when receiving advice from novices, but they were still likely to ignore the advice. When receiving advice from novices, high power individuals ignored advice on 53.3 percent of their judgments compared to 31 percent for low power individuals.
These findings are important because there have been many commentators suggesting that President-elect Trump will now have to be more inclusive because he occupies the land's highest office. Furthermore, some commentators have compared the President-elect’s cabinet to Abraham Lincoln’s creation of a “team of rivals” who were willing to challenge Lincoln’s views and forced Lincoln to rethink his initial perspectives. Similarly, Barack Obama has lately discussed how the Oval Office can change people, leading them to be more inclusive. However, the above research demonstrates that holding greater power triggers the opposite: it can foster less perspective taking, a greater sense of control over random events, and an increased likelihood of discounting advice from even experts.
So how do people combat the dark side of power? Professor Steven Blader at New York University with Ya-Ru Chen found similar effects for greater power contributing to less inclusiveness towards others in the form of reduced fairness in their paper published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. But they found that the way that individuals reduce the dark side of power was highly dependent on their dispositions; namely, the degree to which they were other-oriented. Individuals who believed that close relationships defined themselves and who had empathy for individuals less fortunate than themselves did not fall victim to these same biases.
As President Trump makes his first executive decisions in office, America and the rest of the world will quickly find out whether he is prone to the same biases that many others fall victim to when they experience a sense of power. Of course, Trump often claims that he is different. Here is hoping that he is right.