Lack of Power Enhances Visual Perceptual Discrimination

By Weick, Mario; Guinote, Ana et al. | Canadian Journal of Experimental Psychology, September 2011 | Go to article overview

Lack of Power Enhances Visual Perceptual Discrimination


Weick, Mario, Guinote, Ana, Wilkinson, David, Canadian Journal of Experimental Psychology


Powerless individuals face much challenge and uncertainty. As a consequence, they are highly vigilant and closely scrutinize their social environments. The aim of the present research was to determine whether these qualities enhance performance in more basic cognitive tasks involving simple visual feature discrimination. To test this hypothesis, participants performed a series of perceptual matching and search tasks involving colour, texture, and size discrimination. As predicted, those primed with powerlessness generated shorter reaction times and made fewer eye movements than either powerful or control participants. The results indicate that the heightened vigilance shown by powerless individuals is associated with an advantage in performing simple types of psychophysical discrimination. These findings highlight, for the first time, an underlying competency in perceptual cognition that sets powerless individuals above their powerful counterparts, an advantage that may reflect functional adaptation to the environmental challenge and uncertainty that they face.

Keywords: power, control, motivation, perception, visual discrimination

Lacking power has a profound impact on people's lives. Powerless individuals live under constraint and deprivation (see Keltner, Gruenfeld, & Anderson, 2003), and show significant reductions in health and psychological well-being (e.g., Rivers & Josephs, 2010). These findings coincide with recent evidence that a sense of powerlessness impairs various facets of cognition. Compared to their powerful counterparts, powerless individuals underperform in complex tasks requiring the planning of multiple action sequences, updating goals, task switching, and response inhibition (Guiñóte, 2007c; Smith, Jostmann, Galinsky, & van Dijk, 2008). This underperformance is thought to arise from powerless individuals' heightened vigilance and closer monitoring of the environment (see Fiske, 2010), which in turn reduces their capacity for executive control (Guinote, 2007a, 2007b; Smith, Jostmann, Galinsky, & van Dijk, 2008). The aim of the present research was to show that powerlessness is not singularly detrimental and that the increased vigilance shown in social contexts can enhance basic perceptual discrimination when demands on executive control functions are low. A demonstration of this nature would indicate that powerlessness impacts performance in ways that may be considered adaptive for powerless individuals, and also identify a novel determinant of visual processing efficiency.

Power refers to the ability to control one's own and others' resources (see Fiske & Berdahl, 2007). Powerful individuals live in reward-rich environments, while powerless individuals are faced with threats and exposed to more difficult circumstances. These differences in environmental control affect the ways powerful and powerless individuals approach and interact with the world. Powerless individuals are more restrained, less actionoriented, and tend to monitor their environments more carefully than powerful individuals, who readily impress themselves onto the environment (e.g., Fiske, 1993; Galinsky, Gruenfeld, & Magee, 2003; Keltner et al., 2003). These behavioural signatures map onto two distinct survival strategies, exploration and observation respectively, which can be observed within many species and are assumed to have adaptive functions (see Wilson, Coleman, Clark, & Biederman, 1993).

Past research supports the notion that powerlessness leads to greater vigilance. Low power people generally try to be more accurate and gamer more information to help them regain control over their environment and predict the actions of others (see Fiske, 2010, for a review). In line with this, many studies indicate that powerless individuals attend more carefully to their social environment and as a consequence are often better social perceivers (e.g., Ebenbach & Keltner, 1998; Fiske & Dépret, 1996; Goodwin, Gubin, Fiske, & Yzerbyt, 2000; Guiñóte & Phillips, 2010; Keltner & Robinson, 1997), though clear exceptions to this rule do exist (e. …

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