Australian Lefty on Politics, Governance, Science and Info Management

Fight corporate psychopaths with cryptic crosswords?

Posted by Dave Bath on 2008-05-23

A recent paper detailing how cognitive ability drops in the powerless, keeping the downtrodden in their place by diminishing their abilities, has been getting a lot of attention recently, including "Cognitive disenhancement: From he that hath not" (The Economist, 2008-05-22).

Without going into the gories of the research, the experiment demonstrated that making people feel powerless decreased performance.  While the news services have concentrated on the issues for the downtrodden individuals and groups, few have focussed on the macro-issue – the failure of larger groups (be they corporations or entire societies) to gain maximum benefit from the downtrodden by raising them up – or at least being less oppressive.

Of course, any corporate psychopaths reading the paper will merely get even nastier to help solidify their own place in the pecking order.

The macro effects on parties not directly involved in the power relationship, while not widely reported, are discussed in the paper:

The current results have direct implications for management and organizations.  In many industries (e.g., healthcare, power plants), errors can be costly, tipping the balance from life to death.  Increasing employees’ sense of power could lead to improved executive functioning, decreasing the likelihood of catastrophic errors.  As the performance deficits of the powerless in Experiment 4’s majority-congruent Stroop suggest, such empowerment might be particularly vital in jobs where it is difficult to maintain goal focus because critical situations are infrequent (e.g., airport security screening, product-defect detection).

OK, start adding up the economic costs from actual harm as well as the way progress is impeded.  It thus becomes not merely a social issue, but an economic issue, and thus provides an opportunity for politicians to improve things by improving culture in both government and commercial organizations.

However, I suspect that despite the opportunities to improve corporate profits, managers who are corporate psychopaths would rather maintain their own position, and keep enjoying the misfortune of others.

Mind you, another paper from one of the same authors (Pamela Smith) "Abstract thinking increases one’s sense of power" offers at least a partial solution.  Unfortunately, it’s hard to rebut the impression that concrete thought is more valued in corporations and even our schools (as any mathematically literate parent of today’s high school students is aware).

Across two concrete/abstract thought manipulations and three measures of perceived power, priming participants with abstract thought made them feel more powerful than priming them with concrete thought, or not priming them at all.  These results cannot be explained by changes in mood or motivation, or by a simple mapping of the procedures in the thought task onto the procedures of the power measures.  Instead, the less constraining nature of abstract thought in itself increased participants’ sense of power.

Another paper (Smith, P. K., & Bargh, J. A. (2008). Nonconscious effects of power on basic approach and avoidance tendencies. Social Cognition, 26, 1-24.) stresses the feedback mechanisms:

Individuals primed with power categorize more inclusively, identify objects and actions at a higher level, and are superior at detecting patterns and relationships.

Pure mathematics and cryptic crosswords anyone?

See Also:

  • Smith, P. K., Jostmann, N. B., Galinsky, A. D., & van Dijk, W. (2008). Lacking power impairs executive functions. Psychological Science, 19, 441-447. (preprint here)
  • Smith, P. K., Wigboldus, D. H. J., & Dijksterhuis, A. (2008). Abstract thinking increases one’s sense of power. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 44, 378-385. (paper here)
  • There are lots of other interesting papers, available from Smith’s "home" page.

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