Brain power

How power influences our cognitive performance

Originally posted on The Horizons Tracker.

Economist Sendhil Mullainathan and psychologist Eldar Shafir famously argue that scarcity is the central cause of poverty around the world, with having too little time, energy and so on, having a profound impact on the choices and decisions we make.

“To put it bluntly,” says Mullainathan, “if I made you poor tomorrow, you’d probably start behaving in many of the same ways we associate with poor people.”

The concept is that our mental reserves are finite, and whenever they’re depleted by life, then we’re less likely to make sound and sensible decisions. Just as the distractions caused by social media diminish our cognitive performance, therefore, so too can poverty.

Executive function

At the heart of the matter is what’s known as our executive function, which is what we use to regulate our thoughts and behaviors. Recent research1, from the University of California, San Diego, suggests that the amount of power we have has a big role to play in the level of executive function we can bring to bear on any given situation.

There are three main executive functions. The first of these covers inhibitory control, the second our working memory, and the third our cognitive flexibility. Collectively, these three functions underpin our ability to engage in things such as problem solving, planning and decision making. The researchers hypothesize that having power improves each of these three core functions, which in turn has a profound impact on our ability at work, and in life more generally.

Inhibitory controlResearch2 from the University of Pittsburgh has shown that social media reduces our inhibitory control, which is vital in allowing us to override our impulses and focus on the task at hand, with similar research highlighting the damage open office environments can do to our ability to concentrate. With so many forces at work competing for our attention, the ability to successfully regulate our focus is as difficult as it is crucial. The team from the University of California, San Diego believe that power is a vital ally in achieving this control.

Working memory – Our ability to hold a variety of information in memory and then process it efficiently is vital to effective decision making, especially in times as complex as the one we live in today. Our work environments often see information flooding in from all angles at breakneck speed, and our success depends on our ability to integrate this information into our mental models extremely quickly. Once again, power is believed to make such processing easier.

Cognitive flexibility – With the rapid pace of change in the world today, the ability to update our mental model is crucial to successfully adapt to the changing circumstances we find ourselves in. The researchers believe that high-powered individuals have the greater capacity to do this, due in large part to their ability to inhibit previous situational demands, and then update these with the new demands placed upon them.

Helping those with low power

If those with high power have a natural advantage in each of these areas, what can be done to better support those who aren’t in such a fortunate position? The researchers argue that one of the main reasons high-powered individuals are able to exhibit such strong executive function is because they are able to feel independent from others and are therefore less constrained by their environment.

As such, they believe that giving more power to those low-ranking individuals in your organization, through things such as greater delegation and responsibility, along with more resources can help to improve their sense of both efficacy and independence.

There are inevitably going to be those among us who have little chance of securing meaningful power anytime soon, so what can these individuals do? Previous research suggests that a self-affirmation can be hugely effective, and simple activities such as writing about an important personal value can boost our sense of power, which in turn boosts our inhibitory control levels.

There is also evidence to suggest that giving people more choices in key areas of their life can be equally effective as these choices give people a sense of agency in much the same way that power can do. In the workplace, this can be as simple as giving people control over their workspace.

When power doesn’t help

Of course, giving people control is no guarantee that they will make better decisions, and the authors illustrate various examples of powerful people acting poorly, such as by not paying attention to tasks because they’re not deemed to be important. It’s important in such circumstances to ensure that the goals of the individual are well aligned with that of the organization.

Similarly, high-power groups don’t always outperform their low-powered peers, as they can often succumb to internal conflict, especially about the distribution of power within the group. As such, for power to be effective in such scenarios, it needs the distribution of power within the group to be sensitively handled.

Equally, powerful people can often be so loaded down with tasks and obligations that their mental reserves are depleted to the extent that their decision making suffers.

These are relatively rare however, and it’s much more common for power to perpetuate performance differences, and the inequalities that result from that. It results in low-power individuals performing poorly not out of any lack of talent or application, but simply because their mental reserves has been depleted to the point that they no longer think in an optimal way. This can result in their power reducing, and the problems getting progressively worse.

It’s not a situation with an easy resolution, but awareness is a good place to start in trying to redress the balance and create a world in which the best of people truly gets a chance to shine.

Article source: How Power Influences Our Cognitive Performance.


  1. Yin, Y., & Smith, P. K. (2019). Power and cognitive functioning. Current opinion in psychology.
  2. Wilcox, K., & Stephen, A. T. (2013). Are close friends the enemy? Online social networks, self-esteem, and self-control. Journal of Consumer research, 40(1), 90-103.
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Adi Gaskell

I'm an old school liberal with a love of self organizing systems. I hold a masters degree in IT, specializing in artificial intelligence and enjoy exploring the edge of organizational behavior. I specialize in finding the many great things that are happening in the world, and helping organizations apply these changes to their own environments. I also blog for some of the biggest sites in the industry, including Forbes, Social Business News, Social Media Today and, whilst also covering the latest trends in the social business world on my own website. I have also delivered talks on the subject for the likes of the NUJ, the Guardian, Stevenage Bioscience and CMI, whilst also appearing on shows such as BBC Radio 5 Live and Calgary Today.

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