Power and Cognition

“All things are subject to interpretation. Whichever interpretation prevails at a given time is a function of power and not truth.” – Friedrich Nietzsche


In Power in a Social Field, we introduced the idea that people what people pay attention to, think about, conjecture about, and imagine – in short, their cognition, is key for navigating their world, especially regarding power.

Since French and Raven (1959) described power as being influence, many researchers assume  that power over someone entails being able to offer them things they want (“rewards,” which could be a job opportunity, a letter of recommendation, a quiet and clean apartment, etc.) or things they do not want (“punishments,” which could be bad letter of recommendation, the “silent treatment,” a longer stay in prison). A short-cut version of these ideas is the power-as-control (PAC) model.

Putting these two ideas: social cognition and social influence together, we come to the question of how having, or not having, power might change the way people perceive, understand, and treat, other people.

Naturally, simple questions do not always have simple answers.

Some researchers find that having power -- being in a position to influence other people’s outcomes -- leads people to put less effort and intention into how they process information about their environment. In particular, powerful people often pay little attention to those who have less power than they do. According to the power-as-control (PAC) model, people with power are more likely to stereotype people with less power because they don’t need to, they don’t want to, or they don’t have the cognitive capacity to attend to information that is inconsistent with their stereotypes. Rather, powerholders are more motivated to attend to information that is consistent with their stereotypes (e.g., Fiske, 1993; Goodwin, Gubin, Fiske, & Yzerbyt, 2000). Leaders, whether they are leaders in their own workplaces or were randomly assigned to a leadership position in a laboratory experiment, express high confidence in their judgments of others (Caetano, Vala, & Leyens, 2001). Such research implies that bosses, people in positions of authority, and people who can offer rewards or punishments (see Influence Tactics) will be likely to stereotype others and not to notice ways that they do not fit stereotypes.

In contrast, those who depend on others for access to resources and positive opportunities pay more attention to details about others, especially powerful others, so that they can anticipate how the powerful others’ actions might affect them.  Accurate information processing as a technique for coping with being dependent on others. An even broader theory, the Power as Social Distance model, proposes that having outcome control over others makes people sense that others are more distant. For powerful people, since others are psychologically distant from them, they are less empathic and not as personal to them; their responses are more abstract (Magee & Smith, 2013).

Different research, though, suggests that people in superior positions do form accurate impressions of others (see review by Hall, Schmid Mast, & Latu, 2014). Often when different lines of research seem to predict and find somewhat opposing evidence, the solution is to consider how both theories might be a special version of a more general theory.

In this case, if sometimes more powerful people (e.g., bosses), and sometimes less powerful people (e.g., underlings) seem to pay more attention to the actions and traits of the other, is it possible we can explain both effects with a broader theory?

Ana Guinote and colleagues propose that people pay more attention to others and consider information more when doing so is relevant to their goals (Guinote, 2007; Slabu & Guinote, 2009). In other words, one’s current goal helps to draw one’s attention to relevant information and helps filter out information that is not pertinent to one’s goal. So, if a boss needs to figure out which underling should be trusted with an important task, or which one is not pulling her weight, the boss has a goal requiring that she get good information and discern differences. Similarly, if an employee wants to ask for a raise from the manager most likely to give it to her, she has to pay attention to clues about which manager provides her best prospect for a raise.

One specific theory relating cognition to power and goals is called the approach/inhibition theory of power (Keltner, Gruenfeld, & Anderson, 2003). The approach/inhibition approach states that when people have less relational power, an important goal is to avoid threats or punishments that could be inflicted by people with power. To help accomplish that goal, people with less relational power generally inhibit actions they might otherwise take (e.g., they don't insult someone back). Those with more power are less constrained by fear of threats or punishments from others, especially from those with less power than them, so can simply pursue their goals (Keltner, Gruenfeld, & Anderson, 2003). In other words, instead of trying to prevent themselves from acting in certain potentially dangerous ways like subordinates do (the inhibit part of the theory), people with more power act in ways to approach their goals (the approach part).

These theories demonstrate that there are different underlying motivations that affect how people with power (versus those without it) conceive of and behave within their social environments. Namely, people with power are motivated to maintain and increase their power while those without power are motivated to protect themselves from possible threats that powerful others possess. Some scholars have taken this information to suggest that compared to individuals without power, those with power will use less effort and deliberation in processing information and will rely more heavily on heuristics -- simply mental shortcuts -- because they are less constrained by consequences associated with possibly being wrong (see Smith & Trope, 2006). However, other scholars propose that rather than thinking about the differences in information processing between powerholders and those without power in terms of simplicity vs complexity, it may be more useful to think about the differences in information processing in terms of abstraction vs concreteness (Smith & Trope, 2006). Specifically, the more power one has, the more abstract level thinking one engages in, like focusing on the gist of information and primary attributes of stimuli. In contrast, people with less power engage in more concrete-level thinking. Clearly, in certain situations, both concrete thinking (e.g., are the egg whites I am whipping stiff enough?) and abstract thinking (e.g., a five-point star is the way to lay out where to put 5 stakes around my circular vegetable bed) can be useful.


Caetano, Vala, J., & Leyens, J-P. (2001). Judgeability in person perception: The confidence of leaders. Group Dynamics, 5, 102-110. https://doi.org/10.1037/1089-2699.5.2.102

Fiske, S. T. (1993). Controlling other people: The impact of power on stereotyping. American Psychologist, 48, 621–628. https://doi.org/10.1037/0003-066X.48.6.621

Goodwin, S. A., Gubin, A., Fiske, S. T., & Yzerbyt, V. Y. (2000). Power can bias impression processes: Stereotyping subordinates by default and by design. Group Processes and Intergroup Relations, 3, 227–256. https://doi.org/10.1177/1368430200003003001

Guinote, A. (2007). Power affects basic cognition: Increased attentional inhibition and flexibility. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology43(5), 685-697. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jesp.2006.06.008

Hall, J. A., Schmid Mast, M., & Latu, I.-M. (2015). The vertical dimension of social relations and accurate interpersonal perception: A meta-analysis. Journal of Nonverbal Behavior, 39(2), 131–163. https://doi.org/10.1007/s10919-014-0205-1

Keltner, D., Gruenfeld, D. H., & Anderson, C. (2003). Power, approach, and inhibition. Psychological Review, 110, 265–284. https://doi.org/10.1037/0033-295X.110.2.265

Magee, J. C., Milliken, F. J., & Lurie, A. R. (2010). Power differences in the construal of a crisis: The immediate aftermath of September 11, 2001. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin36(3), 354-370. https://doi.org/10.1177/0146167209360418

Smith, P. K., & Trope, Y. (2006). You focus on the forest when you're in charge of the trees: Power priming and abstract information processing. Journal of Personality and Social  Psychology, 90 (4), 578-596. https://doi.org/10.1037/0022-3514.90.4.578

Class Exercises & Discussion Questions

Do powerful people inherently think differently, or is it their power that enables them to have different cognitions than those with less power/status/etc.?

  • Come up with a problem, such as needing to reschedule a meeting, ask for time off, ask for a raise, or another similar scenario that could realistically apply to both high- and low-powered individuals.
    • What does theory suggest about how a high-powered person vs. a low-powered person would approach the problem? What cognitive styles might they employ? How would this change if the low-powered person was asking the high-powered person?

What are some of the reasons that low-powered individuals experience more cognitive "clutter" than high-powered individuals?

Do you think concrete or abstract thinking gets more status?

What are the consequences for people's mental and emotional lives of having high or low power? Could these cognitive patterns become habits instead of just situated cognition?

Additional Materials

Power and Impressions in the Workplace

How Power Affects the Brain