In the 1980s, before she started studying the nature of power, psychologist Deborah Gruenfeld, PhD, did public relations for magazines. There was one editor whose sense of entitlement she'll never forget: "He had a refrigerator by his desk with only two things in it—cut raw onions and a bottle of vodka. And while we were meeting he'd lean over and take a drink of the vodka and eat the onions. He never offered to share, and nobody ever questioned it."
Now a professor of leadership and organizational behavior at the Graduate School of Business at Stanford, Gruenfeld says the man's behavior was a perfect example of what some studies have shown—that people in positions of power are more likely to focus on their own needs and goals while disregarding what others are experiencing. (In one experiment, the empowered people ate the extra cookie from a plate, chewed with their mouths open, and scattered crumbs.) Having authority, Gruenfeld and her colleagues have found, tends to make you favor people who are useful to you, regardless of whether they're likeable; it also inflates the sense that you can influence random events, such as rolling a die. And it makes you less inhibited socially and sexually.
In other experiments, Cameron Anderson, PhD, an associate professor of organizational behavior and industrial relations at UC Berkeley, discovered that power made people positively overestimate how others viewed them. And Gerben van Kleef, PhD, an associate professor of social psychology at the University of Amsterdam, found that high-powered people were less compassionate. Interestingly, researchers say their findings apply to both sexes.
"Power definitely transforms the way you approach the world," says Adam Galinsky, PhD, a professor of management and organizations at Northwestern University's Kellogg School of Management and one of Gruenfeld's collaborators. And that transformation can be a good thing: The traits power enhances—being goal-oriented, self-interested, and comfortable taking risks—are potent leadership qualities when wielded responsibly. "The trick," says Galinsky, "is to harness power without letting it harness you."
— Jonathan Vatner