Illusory Power Transference

“Illusory Power Transference” is the academic name for feeling powerful due to a superficial connection to a powerful person, such as having once been in the same room:

Suppose that one day, an employee at a large multinational corporation attends an event in which the company’s rarely seen chief executive officer (CEO) makes an appearance. As the CEO works the room, the employee greets him with a handshake, followed by a brief conversation in which they exchange pleasantries. The CEO thanks him for being ‘‘part of the team’’ and then excuses himself to deliver his keynote address. When the event is over, the employee walks back to his office and resumes his job as an investment manager. How would this brief association with the company’s most powerful figure affect the employee’s mindset and behavior when he resumes his work? …

We propose that … associating with the powerful CEO suggests that he, too, must be powerful. Moreover, this minimal connection with the CEO would actually lead him to act as if he personally possessed more power when making important decisions on the job and interacting with others. ….

We use two experiments to … demonstrate that men who have a tenuous association with a powerful other (versus a powerless or equal-power other) felt more powerful and were more optimistic, confident, and risk seeking, even though they could not leverage the associate’s power. (more; HT Tyler Cowen)

I have suggested that lot of otherwise puzzling behavior can be explained by strong evolved desires to affiliate with high status (i.e., impressive or powerful) people. Apparently even very weak affiliations can make big differences. This can help explain our preferring live art and sport events, and our uncritical relations to academics, real estate agents, investment advisors, doctors, lawyers, etc.

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  • Jonathan Graehl

    For those of us who aren’t public figures, is there any way to profit by internalizing the fact that modern life has many more disconnected interactions than our naive social computers indicate? (other than becoming a confidence artist, I mean).

    Yes, with our friends and peers, it’s still tribal. But everywhere else?

    I guess: become less afraid of asserting yourself against high-status strangers (wherever this doesn’t get you beaten or jailed).

    • AC

      In our modern urban-anonymity world, there are huge returns to acting higher-status than you actually are. This fact is the basis for both the PUA industry and the self-esteem books that swamp the bookshelves.

  • Douglas Knight

    If this particular effect is evolved, it must be from the agricultural era.

    In a Dunbar-sized group of hunter-gatherers, neither the scenario of no contact with the chief nor of the minimal greeting would be realistic, so there would be no evolved ability to distinguish them.

  • Firepower

    This is akin to the situational brainwashing that goes on at seminars conducted by “famous” types – like Tony Robbins etc.

    You can tell, because it wears off eventually.

  • jim

    Perhaps we are built to believe in an inverse relationship between power and contact. — ie if somebody is often talked about, but we rarely interact with them, then they must be very powerful relative to us. God being the extreme example — constant talk and no contact. How often did an average person interact with the tribe or village chief?

    So our rare, special event interaction with CEOs, sports stars, doctors, lawyers, etc, makes us even more in awe of their status and power.

    And good are our brains at telling the difference between a real interaction and one via media. Most of us will never be in the same building as Obama, but we see see and hear video of him almost every single day.

    How often do today’s employees see pictures or watch videos of their CEO?

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