When the Boss Feels Inadequate: Power, Incompetence, and Aggression

Fast, N. J. and Chen, S. (2009). Psychological Science, 20, 1406-1413.

When and why do power holders seek to harm other people? The present research examined the idea that aggression among the powerful is often the result of a threatened ego. Four studies demonstrated that individuals with power become aggressive when they feel incompetent in the domain of power. Regardless of whether power was measured in the workplace (Studies 1 and 4), manipulated via role recall (Study 2), or assigned in the laboratory (Study 3), it was associated with heightened aggression when paired with a lack of self-perceived competence. As hypothesized, this aggression appeared to be driven by ego threat: Aggressiveness was eliminated among participants whose sense of self-worth was boosted (Studies 3 and 4). Taken together, these findings suggest that (a) power paired with self-perceived incompetence leads to aggression, and (b) this aggressive response is driven by feelings of ego defensiveness. Implications for research on power, competence, and aggression are discussed.

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Common Ground and Cultural Prominence: How Conversation Reinforces Culture

Fast, N.J., Heath, C., and Wu, G. (2009). Psychological Science, 20, 904-911.

Why do well-known ideas, practices, and people maintain their cultural prominence in the presence of equally good or better alternatives? This article suggests that a social-psychological process whereby people seek to establish common ground with their conversation partners causes familiar elements of culture to increase in prominence, independently of performance or quality. Two studies tested this hypothesis in the context of professional baseball, showing that common ground predicted the cultural prominence of baseball players better than their performance, even though clear performance metrics are available in this domain. Regardless of performance, familiar players, who represented common ground, were discussed more often than lesser-known players, both in a dyadic experiment (Study 1) and in natural discussions on the Internet (Study 2). Moreover, these conversations mediated the positive link between familiarity and a more institutionalized measure of prominence: All-Star votes (Study 2). Implications for research on the psychological foundations of culture are discussed.

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Illusory Control: A Generative Force Behind Power’s Far-Reaching Effects

Fast, N.J., Gruenfeld, D.H, Sivanathan, N., and Galinsky, A.D. (2009). Psychological Science, 20, 502-508.

Three experiments demonstrated that the experience of power leads to an illusion of personal control. Regardless of whether power was experientially primed (Experiments 1 and 3) or manipulated through roles (manager vs. subordinate; Experiment 2), it led to perceived control over outcomes that were beyond the reach of the power holder. Furthermore, this illusory control mediated the influence of power on several self-enhancement and approach-related outcomes reported in the power literature, including optimism (Experiment 2), self-esteem (Experiment 3), and action orientation (Experiment 3). These results demonstrate the theoretical importance of perceived control as a generative cause of and driving force behind many of power's far-reaching effects. A fourth experiment ruled out an alternative explanation: that positive mood, rather than illusory control, is at the root of power's effects. The discussion considers implications for existing and future research on the psychology of power, perceived control, and positive illusions.

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Group Status, Perceptions of Threat, and Support for Social Inequality

Morrison, K.R., Fast, N.J., and Ybarra, O. (2009). Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 45, 204-210.

Members of high-status groups have been shown to favor social inequality, but little research has investigated the boundary conditions of this phenomenon. In the present article we suggest that perceived intergroup threat moderates the relationship between group status and support for social inequality (i.e., social dominance orientation), especially among highly identified group members. In Study 1, Democrats and Republicans rated their party’s relative status and were later exposed to a leading US. Presidential candidate from the opposing party (high threat) or their own party (low threat). In Study 2, university students were made to believe that their school had high or low status and were then presented with threatening or non-threatening information about a rival institution. The results of both studies supported the prediction that status only increases preferences for group-based inequality under conditions of high threat and high ingroup identification.

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