The psychology of power

In a comment on this entry, Chris points to this interview with Deborah Gruenfeld. Some excerpts:

I [Gruenfeld] have been studying the psychological consequences of having power for the past seven years . . . There are just so many good examples of people with power who behave in ways that demand some kind of psychological explanation.

For example, I had a brief career in journalism, and I occasionally met with Jann Wenner, the founder and publisher of Rolling Stone. . . . He had in his office a small refrigerator within arm’s reach of his desk. As far as I could tell, there were only two things in there: a bottle of vodka and a bag of raw onions. While we were meeting, he would reach over, open the door, drink vodka straight out of the bottle, and eat onions. What’s striking about it now is that none of us ever said anything to him about this, and he never even offered to share! He seemed to think it was perfectly appropriate to do this in a meeting. And that is, I think, a classic example of what we think is going on with power, which is what we call “disinhibition.”

Gruenfeld continues:

Disinhibition involves acting on your own desires in a social context without considering the effects of your actions. It implies a heightened sensitivity to your own internal state and also a reduced sensitivity to other’s interests and experiences. It implies action orientation in pursuit of a goal and also the possibility that you might use others as a means to an end.

We believe the reason power leads to disinhibition is that power activates the behavioral approach system. This is a psycho-physiological system that regulates our behavior in response to rewards and opportunities. . . . animal behavior . . . serotonin levels . . . monkeys move into alpha or beta position . . .

I have a couple of problems with this. First, as a person who regularly eats celery in meetings, I don’t understand what’s so bad about this, or why it’s an example of “using others as a means to an end.” I mean, I’d be eating the celery whether or not the other people are there; similarly, Wenner can drink vodka and eat onions whenever he wants–how is he using others as a means to an end? (Unlike Wenner, though, I do offer to share.)

My other comment is more general and relates to the comment at the beginning of the quote that the behaviors of people in power “demand some kind of psychological explanation.” I would think that simple hunger would be enough of an explanation here. (When my students get hungry, they eat too–but, even more often, they’re tired in the morning and drink coffee. As long as they don’t leave the coffee cups sitting on the desks, I don’t mind.)

Clearly I’m missing something here. Perhaps there’s a clash of cultures here. Gruenfeld teaches at a business school, and I imagine the business world has a lot of formal and informal rules (e.g., “don’t eat during meetings”). In contrast, the academic world (and maybe also the journalistic world of which Rolling Stone is a part) is more informal, thus no need for a psychological explanation for people to eat and drink during meetings.

9 thoughts on “The psychology of power

  1. Andrew, I think you might be kidding, at least about some parts of your comment. But in case you're not:

    (1) From the quote that you offered, I don't think Gruenfeld is suggesting that eating onions and drinking vodka when meeting with people is an example of "using others as a means to an end." I think she's saying it's an example of "disinhibition." She suggests that "using others as means to an end" can be a symptom of disinhibition, but not that it's the only one. (As for me, my question is: who among us does NOT try to use others as means to an end?)

    (2) In many settings, it's considered impolite for the host to eat or drink without offering to share, in cases in which sharing is possible. There are certainly exceptions. If you are already drinking a cup of tea, for example, you are not required to stop drinking it when your guest arrives. In academic settings, people often bring personal food or snacks to group meetings…that's OK too, because no individual is playing the social role of host. But it would indeed be impolite if you invite people into your office and then pull out some celery and start eating it, or if you brew up come coffee or tea for yourself, without offering any to your guests.

    For what it's worth, as far as I recall any time I have visited your office and you have started eating, you have offered food to me too, so I think you give yourself insufficient credit for understanding these social rules.

  2. Well, Andrew, I have to admit that when I met you in your office earlier this year, I found it a bit amusing to see you crunching on capsicums and carrots while telling me about mixture models. But I just assumed you were yet another eccentric professor with eccentric habits. I've been telling everyone in Potsdam that I met Andrew Gelman and he was eating capsicums and carrots while telling me about cool stuff.

    Now, if you had been swilling vodka while telling me about mixture models, I think I would not have believed anything you told me that day (though I still have my doubts, which you are slowly and patiently clarifying for me).

    If you had been eating raw onions I would have asked for a bite, because I love raw onions, especially ones that bring tears to your eyes.

    More seriously, though, I routinely get students in my office who, mid-sentence, will whip out their cell phone to talk to whoever about whatever trivial piece of nonsense students talk about. Some apologize but do it anyway, others just stop talking to me and pick up their phone when it buzzes. Here, the power equation is reversed, I'm the professor, they are the student; yet they do this "disinhibition" thing. I believe I am supposed to just sit there and wait until their business is finished.

    I believe the technical term for this is being a jerk.

  3. Andrew,

    I think what you are missing here is the strangeness of the behavior. Eating celery in meetings is nothing unusual compared to eating raw onions and drinking Vodka.

    Let's try an experiment. Instead of bringing the usual water bottle during a meeting, try a 10oz bottle of Vodka.

  4. Perhaps what needs explaining is the combination of vodka and onions :). Power aside, it's perfectly normal for very busy people to multi-task. This includes eating snacks in meetings, especially if one typically has many meetings.

    My own pet peeve is the part about using somebody as a means to an end. This is something we do all the time, as when I hire someone to paint my house or fix my cable. I think this is a perversion of Kant's commandment to never use a person as a means ONLY and always recognize that people are ends in themselves, meaning I have to respect someone's human rights (and particularly their ability to reason) when I use them as a means. For example, I can't force you at gunpoint to paint my house.

  5. This is interesting, particularly the comment by vasishth. Both my wife and I teach at universities. She seems to have many more problems with students' behaviour than I do. Could this be because I am male and she is female? Could students be treating her with less respect because in general they treat women differently to men. A power thing.

    Or could it be that women perceive these little slights more than men.

    On a related note, has anyone ever worked for a genuine sociopath. It's amazing how their behaviour takes you completely by surprise.

  6. Perhaps it was the vodka that was the cause of disinhibition, not power?

    As for business rules and habits: a meeting over a meal is a different affair than a strictly-business meeting. Eating slows down the talking: the dialogue in a meeting becomes more a sequence of monologues as people generally don't talk while they've got food in their mouth. It's also a bit more casual, as there is not as much privacy in a restaurant compared to an office. So, while the coordination will happen in offices or over phone, story-telling is what happens during a meal.

    In an academic setting, however, a normal meeting is more like a sequence of monologues (mini lectures?) as people try to explain relatively complex ideas.

  7. Regarding the male/female distinction in student behavior, I bet that is a factor; but it turns out I am male and still have this problem of cell-phone abuse in meetings with students. But it's possible my students treat me less as a Herr Professor Doktor because I (in spite of my extreme age) look like a student myself (more accurately, German undergrad students tend to be a bit older than American ones), and it seems I am unusually informal (for Germany) in my dealings with students.

  8. Okay, I've been wondering if there would be a web site that would offer the opportunity to comment on Dr. Gruenfeld's research. So, far it sounds like the commenters all know each other, so here's a comment from a complete stranger who stumbled upon Gruenfeld's research while looking for information about the psychological make-up of people who successfully attain positions of power. I agree that the doctor's anecdotal examples are less than solid. The behavior described can be explained by the effect of the particular environmental culture that prevailed during these informal research observations such as the more casual, eccentric culture of the academic and news reporting world. Let me make my point concisely. It has been my (anecdotal) observation that people who seem to acquire power easily are already disinhibited which causes them to appear to be supremely confident. It is that consistent display of confidence that influences the response behavior of people around them AND attracts people as supporters, aides, abettors, co-dependents, etc. I also believe that another factor has to be present. The tendency of power-people to engage in sociopathic behavior. Once they have acquired the desired position of power, the power-person can relax and dispense with the mimicking of socially acceptable, down-right charming behavior used to manipulate the people who were needed to help the power-person attain his/her goal. Hence, the effect looks like they have become drunk with power or disinhibited. I'm not convinced that power-people were ever genuinely inhibited — that they would feel remorse or accept responsibility for the damaging or negative effect that their disinhibited behavior might cause.

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