These days not a moment goes by where the talking heads on news programs are not discussing yet another instance of ever growing income gap between the ultra-rich and the rest of the country. The rich are getting richer while the rest are either economically stagnant and/or getting poorer. In light of this income gap several social outcries, such as occupy Wall Street and 15$ minimum wage movement, have made it to national news but overall the public response has been muted. What instead has not been muted is uproar by the über rich about how they are being persecuted for political reasons, they have amassed all their wealth because they work harder than the poor, and that it is actually good that 85 richest people on the planet have the same amount of wealth as 3.5 billion people living in poverty. What is the reasoning behind that last comment you ask? To give the poorest, who barely have any access to basic necessities like food and water, a goal to strive for of course.
It is hard to look at the above noted comments by the ultra rich and not think that their psyche is twisted, if not downright evil. On the other hand, it is a bit too simplistic to explain these comments away by proclaiming that their selfishness is just human nature or by throwing out the famous quotation; “absolute power corrupts absolutely”. Even if these surface level comments have a kernel of truth behind them, they are by no means explanatory. For those searching for a deeper explanation one need not look further than Magee and Smith’s (2013), psychological researchers hailing from New York University and UCSD, social distance theory of power that aims to map out how and why people in position of power tend to be so out of touch from low-power individuals.
To be powerful means to be in a social relationship where someone is more dependent on you for a particular outcome than vice versa (Emerson, 1962). And inherent to this asymmetric relationship is the possibility of divergent psychological experiences, which, in a way, is to be expected. People from different walks of life are going to have different psychological worldviews. That much is obvious. What is not obvious is the fact of how an asymmetric power relation creates psychological distance between individuals and this systematically gives birth to a whole host of other psychological artifacts that only serve to maintain the aforementioned psychological distance.
For social distance theory of power the psychological artifacts that serve to enhance psychological distance between high and low power individuals are as follows:
- Assuming dissimilarity in social comparison by people in high-power positions
- Not having any concerns about mental states of others by people in high-power positions
- People in high-power positions having problems accurately recognizing others’ emotional expressions.
- People in high-power positions experiencing socially disengaging emotions more intensely and socially engaging emotions less intensely than people in low-power positions.
There are a plethora of experimental studies already available that make a good case for these social distance theory psychological artifacts being true. In a study by Galinsky et al. (2006), for instance, it was demonstrated that people who were primed with high power spontaneously engaged in perspective taking less frequently than those who were primed with low power. A study by Overbeck, Neale, and Govan (2010) showed that during negotiations people with low power tend to cooperate and concede more frequently than people with high power. Lastly, one of the experiments by Shirako et al. (2012) established that participants primed with high power were worse at recognizing static emotional expressions than participants primed with low power.
Things become even more interesting when one looks at the consequences of psychological distance created by power differences between individuals. Specifically, because people with power get habituated to psychological distance from most others around them, they also start construing reality at a more abstract level. In a laboratory setting, this phenomenon manifests itself in the form of people primed with high power focusing on gestalt patterns of stimuli more so than people primed with low power (Stel et al., 2012). In real world setting this phenomenon has been observed in high ranking government officials who described 9/11 attacks in abstract terms more so than victims of the attack (Magee et al., 2010).
When people learn to interpret certain aspects of reality from a particular standpoint, over time because of habit more often than not people end up trying to understand everything around them through that singular viewpoint. Thus, with respect to high power individuals, their burgeoning habit of interpreting the world in abstract terms triggers a snowball effect where they start stereotyping and individuating a lot more so than people in low power positions.
Both stereotyping and individuation are abstract processes where while stereotyping is about explaining behavior of individuals via adjectives associated with social groups, individuation is the act of focusing on traits of individuals that one thinks defines them across multiple situations. It has been experimentally proven that high power individuals focus on stereotype consistent characteristics and try to ignore stereotype inconsistent characteristics while vice versa is true for low power individuals (Goodwin et al., 2000). A slightly indirect but relevant experimental proof for the individuation claim can be found in Rim et al. (2009) study which indicated that psychologically distant (in time or space) observers were more inclined to draw trait inferences about actors compared to psychologically close observers.
With this brief glimpse at cognitive consequences of having power over others it starts to make sense why the über rich are so out of touch from the rest of the world. It seems as though being a jerk is almost inherent to having lots of money. But all is not lost. There are a few mechanisms available that can assist in reducing psychological distance between the über rich and non über rich. One is recalibration of über rich’s goals. It is possible to trigger other-oriented concern in the power-holder by making it salient to the power holder her/his magnitude of responsibility for others’ well-being. This “other” could be as large as humanity or be merely one’s business subordinates. All that matters is development of self-construal that is relational in nature. A second mechanism that can help in reducing psychological distance between the über rich and non über rich is delegitimizing the power of the über rich. But since to delegitimize the über rich in contemporary society would mean to delegitimize money itself, this second mechanism is going to remain a pipe dream for quite some time to come.
Emerson, R.M. (1962). Power-dependence relations. American Sociological Review, 27, 31-41.
Galinsky, A.D., Magee, J.C., Inesi, M.E., & Gruenfeld, D.H. (2006). Power and perspectives not taken. Psychological Science, 17, 1068-1074.
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.
Magee, J.C., Milliken, F.J., & Lurie, A.R. (2010). Power differences in the construal of a crises: The immediate aftermath of September 11, 2001. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 36, 354-370.
Magee, J.C., & Smith, P.K. (2013). The social distance theory of power. Personality and Social Psychology Review, 17(2), 158-186.
Overbeck, J.R., Neale, M.A., & Govan, C.L. (2010). I feel, therefore you act: Intrapersonal and interpersonal effects of emotion on negotiation as a function of social power. Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes, 112, 126-139.
Rim, S., Uleman, J.S., & Trope, Y. (2009). Spontaneous trait inference and construal level theory: Psychological distance increases nonconscious trait thinking. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 45, 1088-1097.
Shirako, A., Blader, S.L., & Chen, Y.R. (2012). Looking out from the top: Differential effects of power and status on perspective-taking. Unpublished manuscript, New York University, NY.
Stel, M., van Dijk, E., Smith, P.K., van Dijk, W.W., & Djalal, F.M. (2012). Lowering the pitch of your voice makes you feel more powerful and think more abstractly. Social Psychological and Personality Sciences, 3, 497-502.