Recalling a past experience of power does not always have the intended effect of making people feel more powerful. A new study indicates that the effort required to recall the power episode may be the reason this technique can fail.
Psychological tools are proving to be very effective in helping people in the workplace gain the right frame of mind in challenging situations. Imagine that you are about to enter a room where you will make a presentation in front of a powerful client. Appearing diffident or unsure would be the worst impression you could make in this situation. Psychological research has shown that subtle manipulations such as thinking of a time in which you were in a position of power (a technique known as ‘power recall’) can significantly alter your behaviour. In your new frame of mind, you appear more relaxed and confident.
Some critics of these psychological techniques, however, are pointing to studies in which the techniques do not have as much of an effect as expected. A new study by an international team of researchers from the University of Cologne and INSEAD in Europe and Kellogg School of Management and Columbia Business School in the U.S. explores one of the potential reasons moderating when the power recall may “work” and when not: ease of retrieval.
Ease of retrieval refers to how easy it is for someone to remember an experience of power. For example, take a scenario in which you ask someone whose confidence you want to bolster to remember an episode in which they were in a powerful position (power in these cases is any situation in which one is in control of what is happening). That person thinks hard but can’t seem to remember such a situation — or finally after much effort conjures one event. The researchers believed that the difficulty this person had to recall a power episode, in this example, would only reinforce that person’s feelings of powerlessness — in essence reducing or even reversing the intended effect.
Using participants from the Amazon Mechanical Turk survey service, the researchers conducted four experiments. In the first experiment, they asked participants to recall a power episode or an episode in which they were powerless (depending on whether the participants had been selected for the power or no power condition group). The participants then answered a few questions on how easy or hard it was to recall the episode and to recall details of the episode. Finally, the participants answered a series of questions that measured their confidence.
The researchers conducted a second and third experiment with the same power recall and ease of retrieval metrics, but measured, respectively, the disobedience and unethical behaviour (rather than confidence) of the participants. These three measures – confidence, disobedience and unethical behaviour – were chosen in light of past research showing their connection to power — i.e., that power leads to confidence, disobedience and unethical behaviour.
The results were consistent: the harder the retrieval, the less effective the technique in developing a sense of power and, subsequently, a sense of confidence, a tendency to be disobedient, or a tendency to reject the norms of ethical behaviour.
In these three experiments, ease of retrieval was measured based on the participant’s subjective assessment (i.e., whether they felt it was easy or hard to recall an episode). In a fourth experiment, the researchers directly manipulated ease of retrieval — that is, they deliberately made the task easier or harder. The method was simple: for participants in the ease-of-retrieval group, the researchers asked them to remember two episodes; for participants in the difficult retrieval group, the researchers asked them to remember eight episodes.
They then measured the correlation between ease of retrieval, power and confidence (as in experiment 1) and found similar results: ease of retrieval correlates to confidence. This fourth experiment confirmed that ease of retrieval did have an impact on the effectiveness of the power recall technique.
Similar to visualisation, recall is a powerful psychological tool to help put you or perhaps an employee who needs your support, into a positive and productive frame of mind. This study cautions, however, that your efforts to help, for example, an employee not to be intimidated before a presentation in front of a powerful group could potentially backfire. If the employee is having trouble recalling a power episode, this difficulty will only reinforce the fact that he or she is not used to having any control over powerful people.
Use the recall tool for feelings of power only after considering how easy such a recall will be for that employee. If you’re not sure, find another way to offer support and encouragement.
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