"Look at me!": People who feel powerful find themselves inspirational

Matthew McConaughey may have surprised some during the 2014 Oscars ceremony when he listed his heroes: each one was a past, present or future version of himself. But it turns out that being your own inspiration isn’t unusual, especially for people who feel socially powerful and influential.

A new study, led by Gerben van Kleef from the University of Amsterdam, asked 140 undergraduates to spend a few minutes writing about a personally inspiring event that took place in the prior five years. Participants then paired up and took turns recounting their inspirational moment to their partner.

Most of the students tended to find it more inspiring to talk about their own experiences than to hear someone else’s, but this difference was especially pronounced for participants who rated themselves more powerful on statements like “I can get others to do what I want.” Ratings by observers of the students’ body language and tone of voice independently confirmed this. Powerful people were definitely getting off on talking about their inspiring experiences, but was this just because they had the mic, and others had to listen?

When we feel powerful, we find
ourselves inspirational. Actor
McConaughey has said he is his own hero. 

Another experiment suggests not. Participants were given the choice to write about an inspiring event that included or did not involve themselves. For individuals feeling low in power, either decision turned out to feel about as inspiring as the other. But for those feeling high in power, it was much more inspiring to write about themselves – even though they were their own audience.

Why is this happening? We know having power in terms of status and influence is linked to feeling more socially distant from others, and consequently to discounting advice, downgrading contributions from others (hence more talking-over them) and being less able to take their perspective. As a matter of course, powerful people don’t expect others to fulfil their needs, and may therefore find it difficult to consider anyone else a worthy source of inspiration. It’s a little like a child for whom no one in the playground is up to scratch, so they become their own best friend.

Before getting smug, we should recognise that we all have the potential to be like that child. In the second experiment, participants were randomly assigned to the power condition, and power was artificially induced merely through a preliminary writing task – “tell me a time when you had power over others”. These phases and tendencies are likely to move in all of us, day by day. So maybe McConaughey was just being more forthright than we expect to hear.

_________________________________ ResearchBlogging.org

Van Kleef, G., Oveis, C., Homan, A., van der Lowe, I., & Keltner, D. (2015). Power Gets You High: The Powerful Are More Inspired by Themselves Than by Others Social Psychological and Personality Science DOI: 10.1177/1948550614566857

Post written by Alex Fradera (@alexfradera) for the BPS Research Digest.