Being powerful makes you think analytically

Connor Wood

Social power

Writing a blog means having a public forum, a venue to inform and change people’s minds. And if there’s one thing I’d love to convince people of, it’s that today’s conflicts surrounding religion, culture, and science aren’t the product of failed reasoning and narrow-mindedness as much as of basic social dynamics. This is what I argued in my recent take on the Ken Ham-Bill Nye debates (which, by the way, caused money flood into Ken Ham’s coffers – another reason to ignore pop-culture drivel). It’s what informs my take on Christian fundamentalism. And a recent paper from the University of Wisconsin helps make my case.

Specifically, the paper, “Power Fosters Context-Independent, Analytic Cognition,” used a series of clever experiments to show that having power over others both predicts and even elicits analytic thought styles – the kind of thinking that makes science possible. This finding has some profound implications for the role of science in the popular imagination, and for how to discuss scientific findings with non-scientists.

The experimenters, Yuri Miyamoto of the University Wisconsin and Li-Jun Ji of Queen’s University, Ontario, were inspired by previous research showing that social status and power seem to affect cognition in a variety of ways. For example, one study found that people with power were more likely to affirm stereotypes about lower-status groups – possibly because the powerful don’t see their inferiors as important enough to actually bother learning about. Another study found that socially powerful individuals perceived others as being more distant and processed information about them more abstractly.

Building on these findings, Miyamoto and Ji hypothesized that social power would lead people to think more analytically, while lack of social power would inspire holistic thinking. Their rationale? Simple: they expected that powerlessness would force people to attend more closely to social context and to others’ needs and wishes, while having power would free people to ignore context – a basic feature of analytical thinking.

To test this postulate, the researchers had a group of undergraduates recall episodes from their lives in which they either had exerted influence over other people, or had others exert influence over them. A control group simply described an interaction they’d had with other people. This exercise was designed to prime the subjects to subjectively feel either powerful, powerless, or neutral.  The participants were all then asked to describe an acquaintance of the same sex, including what this person did at school or work.

Here’s what’s interesting. The outcome measure – the result the investigators were looking at – was the number of verbs versus the number of adjectives in the students’ descriptions of their acquaintances. Why this odd fascination with their subjects’ lexical preferences? Easy. Verbs are descriptions of things people do in context. If you say that someone “volunteers at the tutoring lounge,” you’re giving a contextually rich account of what that person does in relationship to other people. If, by contrast, you say that someone “is helpful,” you’re making a global, abstract assessment of that person’s general traits.

Adjectives, in other words, are about categories – helpful, lazy, articulate, stubborn – while verbs are about particular actions. Since one of the basic differences between analytical and holistic cognition is that the former makes more use of abstract, decontextualized categories, the relative use of verbs and adjectives ought to tell us something about the cognitive style of the person using them.

And in fact, the subjects who had recalled feeling powerful used significantly more adjectives than those who’d recalled a time of powerlessness. And also as predicted, those who’d recounted an experience when others had power over them used significantly more verbs. Miyamoto and Ji interpreted these results as a possible confirmation that feeling powerful inspires people to think more analytically, and less contextually – and thus to use abstract categories when describing others.

In another study, the two authors again had research subjects recall experiences of being either powerful or powerless. But this time, the outcome measure was a word-sorting test that gave participants the opportunity to select pairs of words that might be either related by category or by relationship. For example, a word pair like “goose” and “rabbit” would be a categorical pairing, because both words belong to the same abstract category: animals. But a word pair like “rabbit” and “carrot” would be a relational or instrumental pairing, because rabbits eat carrots (in the popular imagination, anyway).

As the researchers expected, the subjects who had been primed to feel powerful chose significantly more categorical (or “taxonomic”) pairings. Meanwhile, those who’d remembered experiences of powerlessness chose significantly more relational pairings. These results once more implied that power over others can influence people to think in abstract categories rather than contextual relationships.

For the final study, Miyamoto and Ji culled data from the massive Wisconsin Longitudinal Study – a multi-decade survey that has tracked a cohort of more than 10,000 high school graduates across the state of Wisconsin since 1957. Within this cohort, Miyamoto and Ji focused on the demographic profiles about 1,200 sibling respondents who had been surveyed between 2004 and 2007, then had them complete the same word-categorization task used in the second experiment to see how education, socioeconomic status (SES), and personal sense of agency influenced their responses.

To conduct the categorization task, the researchers called subjects at home and asked them to select pairs of words. When the results were tabulated, they found that higher incomes, more education, and a stronger sense of personal autonomy predicted significantly more categorical (that is, abstract) word pairings. Running a mediation analysis, they found that the relationships between education, income, and abstract thinking were partially mediated by personal autonomy – that is, well-educated people tended to think more abstractly in part because they felt more personally autonomous.

True, it could be that abstract thinking skills were the reason why some people got more education and earned more money. But remember that, in the first two studies, merely priming otherwise ordinary people to feel powerful prompted them to think analytically. In all three experiments, personal autonomy and power appeared to influence people to think more abstractly and analytically, while feeling powerless predicted holistic and context-dependent thinking.

Now for the meta-level analysis. If there’s actually a contextual and causal relationship between higher position in the social pecking order and analytical cognitive style, it’s worth thinking about how this potentially thorny relationship plays into real-world debates about scientific issues. Science is the analytical cognitive activity par excellence. Its results and methods typically focus on parts rather than wholes, on constituents rather than relationships. This laserlike, decontextualized methodology is, in fact, what makes science work.

At the same time, displays of social power can be genuinely alienating to people who lack it. That might include those with strong religious faith, which has been correlated with holistic cognitive styles. And as growing fundamentalism worldwide – such as the Hindutva fundamentalism leading to India’s recent ban of a major book on Hinduism – demonstrates, many religious believers are apparently feeling up against a wall. In fact, fundamentalist groups often act exactly in the way that a trapped animal might, throwing tactical caution to the wind, leading to a dangerous rigidifying of positions and beliefs.

Of course, not every religious person is a fundamentalist – not by a long shot. And religious believers have plenty of power in the United States; they’re not some benighted minority deserving of everyone’s pity. But the dynamics of personal interaction are a curious thing. It’s conceivable that part of the stiffening resistance to, say, climate science among some laypersons and believers is traceable to gut-level resentment of subtle signals of power.

Seem like an outlandish claim? Maybe, but I know for a fact that analytic thinking can trigger resentment among people who are sensitive enough to pick up on it; once or twice I’ve gotten in trouble with people from less-privileged groups than my own by making gaudy, abstract generalizations and focusing on isolated features of complex realities when I should have been paying attention to context and relationship. Extracting yourself from a social landscape to focus on impersonal or abstract questions can be an incredibly satisfying thing to do – but it can also trip other people’s alarm bells, signaling that you might be escaping to a place that is not only different, but which sees itself as superior.

I don’t know whether the science-minded can realistically do much to stem the tide of religious fundamentalism. But it surely can’t hurt for people to remember that science is a social reality as much as it is a methodology, and that there are reasons to be mindful of one’s audience in context of the uncomfortable dynamics of power and ego. People can – and regularly do – utterly reject otherwise flawless arguments because the messenger has alienated them, has come across as arrogant or condescending or detached. Social realities matter. If we want an analytical enterprise like science to make useful inroads with holistic, quotidian human life, we’d do well to remember this dynamic – particularly in light of the apparent entwinement between social power and analytical, abstract thought.


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