Study Shows Power Holders Project Own Traits and Attitudes Onto Groups They Lead

A new study from the University of Utah’s David Eccles School of Business and USC suggests that people in socially powerful positions tend to engage in social projection by practicing “self-anchoring;” namely, they project their own characteristics onto the groups they represent. It also concludes that individuals placed in positions of power, or primed with the idea of power, used themselves as a reference point to infer group properties, quickly assigning their own traits, attitudes and emotions as characteristic of the group.

“While powerful people’s increased self-anchoring can speed their decision-making, it can also leave them oblivious to their group and complacent about how well they represent it,” writes lead author Jennifer Overbeck of the David Eccles School of Business, in the paper titled “One for All: Social Power Increases Self-Anchoring of Traits, Attitudes and Emotions.” It is slated to be published in the journal Psychological Science this Fall. “People in power don’t want to think they are calloused or self-centered, so it is more palatable to think that their views represent the group. Rather than simply saying, ‘I want this, so I will do this,’ they can think, ‘I want this, and it clearly reflects what the rest of the group wants, therefore I will do it.’”

The study extends existing research on how power affects the ways people construe themselves in their social world and includes results from three separate studies that show a convergent pattern of self-anchoring by the powerful. In addition, two of the three studies showed this self-anchoring occurred primarily in negative dimensions, meaning that powerful participants concluded group members shared their negative—but not their positive—traits, attitudes and feelings.

“The most surprising aspect of the studies was this particular effect involving negative traits and feelings,” Overbeck said. “It appears that managers are most likely to project their own experiences when those experiences may not reflect positively on them—perhaps they want to say, ‘Yes, I’m not the greatest person, but everyone in my group is just like me.’ That may excuse the negativity, or give it an acceptable context.“

“We know from other research that power leads people to focus on positives—what reward will I get here, what opportunities does this situation offer—and it turns out one way they maintain that positive focus is to ‘slough off’ their negative aspects onto others around them,” Overbeck continued.

Business owners and managers can take a few lessons from the research, particularly in questioning whether a group had really come to a consensus decision, or if it’s simply a manager believing that consensus exists by projecting their own feelings onto their team. Businesses could avoid such a mistake by training managers to use “a more systematic process for gaining input and feedback” directly from employees, Overbeck said, particularly on controversial or sensitive issues.

Similarly, if a business knows that a manager with a more caustic or pessimistic personality is more likely to perceive their employees of having the same negative attitudes, the business owners can work to correct that perception, showing the manager that employees have more positive outlooks.

“This could really help to repair spiraling hostility and suspicion between managers and employees whereby the negative manager interprets—incorrectly—everything the employees do as negative,” Overbeck said.