Picture a typical office setting: alone in a standard-sized cubicle, you are in a sea of lowered heads. As the big chief makes the rounds, you have to wonder if he knows you’re there or acknowledges the other employees huddled in a maze-like cluster of enclosures just like yours.
An innovational Wilfrid Laurier University study, the first of its kind, shows that he or she probably doesn’t and this worker-boss dynamic may shed light on power complexes in other relationships as well.
“I think the main thing that we’ve been able to show that has never been shown before is a kind of state-effect power. That means that we put people dynamically into a state of either feeling powerful or feeling powerless and were able to measure some corresponding changes in the way that their brain processes other people’s actions,” said Sukhvinder Obhi, an associate professor in the psychology department at WLU.
This is an innovative contribution to the field of cognitive neuroscience, Obhi noted. He and researchers have discovered a direct link between the level of power an individual feels and their perception of their surroundings. In short, this may explain why your boss calls you by the wrong name even if he or she acknowledges you.
“Specifically we’ve shown that people with high power don’t seem to process other people’s actions as deeply as people who feel powerless,” he explained.
“Someone in a position of power already has access to resources, and therefore might not need to create rapport with an underling,” he said. “But for someone in a junior position, it would be extremely important to mimic behaviour to create good feelings to ultimately gain access to those resources. We’ve known about this pattern of mimicry for a while, but no one has ever figured out how the brain might create this state of affairs.”
The study produced a paper published online this week. Together with Jeremy Hogeveen, a Laurier PhD student, and Michael Inzlicht, an associate professor of at the University of Toronto, Obhi wrote Power Changes How the Brain Responds to Others, which suggests the power constructs may be a biological response that helps to ensure survival.
This discovery has implications for any relationship Obhi said.
“Wherever there is a power dynamic … it seems like whenever you’ve got someone who’s got power and someone who’s got relatively less power, you’ve got this asymmetry to which they are sort of processing each other.”
The study consisted of splitting up 45 participants into three groups: a high power group of people, a low power group and a neutral group, and measuring how their brain reacts to feelings of power.
Previous research found that people in low positions of power mimic the actions of high-powered individuals. The idea is that it is important for employees to mimic powerful individuals in order to create good feelings, with the goal of accessing resources.
Researchers measured “mirror neurons” that fire when we see someone doing something, and repeat it. This helped researchers see how the brain reacted to power, but first they had to set the stage, Obhi said.
The three groups were asked to write essays. One group wrote about a time when they had power over a people, the second group wrote about the opposite and the third, neutral group was just asked to write about their day.
“So this is to try and get them to remember and that correspondingly gets them into a high-power state. What memory involves is a reactivation of the brain network – it’s kind of like re-living the experience and it brings back all of those feelings and thoughts, puts you into the same kind of mental state,” Obhi explained.
The subjects were then asked to watch simple actions performed by people on a computer screen.
“At the same time, we assessed that part of the brain that we know is involved when people watch other people acting. It’s thought to be heavily involved potentially in our ability to understand other people, so we measured that part of the brain and the excitability there.”
The term for this measuring technique is transcranial magnetic stimulation or TMS. While it sounds painful, the technique is noninvasive. A large electromagnetic coil is placed against the scalp near the forehead and stimulates brain cells with weak electric currents, causing activity in various parts of the brain using a magnetic field.
The study showed that people made to feel powerful through the writing exercise showed the least amount of activity in that part of the brain, while the people who felt powerless exhibited the most.
“Essentially if you feel powerless your brain seems to respond more to other people and if you are powerful this part of the brain seems to respond less to other people.”
The researchers think this may show that the bestowment of power on a person can reduce the degree to which their brain processes other people’s actions and that in turn could lead to a lack of understanding of other people, a lack of empathy and a general lack of concern.
“Which are the sorts of things that people experience every day in various kinds of relationships. It could be a professor and a student; it could be a high level university administrator and a professor; it could be a romantic couple where one person holds the power … for example, where one person is the breadwinner and they control resources.”
Obhi said this is a viable theory in any environment with a power differential. This is the first time anyone has ever identified a brain mechanism that may help to explain this behaviour. So the next time the manager’s eyes glaze over, or you feel powerless in a relationship, consider chalking it up to science.