A new study has suggested that people do not listen to others' opinion when they feel the power of their position.
The study, led by Pablo Brinol, a social psychologist at the Universidad Autonoma de Madrid in Spain, looks at how the power of the message recipient affects persuasion.
"Powerful people have confidence in what they are thinking. Whether their thoughts are positive or negative toward an idea, that position is going to be hard to change," said Richard Petty, co-author of the study and professor of psychology at Ohio State University.
The research suggests that the best way to get leaders to consider new ideas is to put them in a situation where they don't feel as powerful.
"If you temporarily make a powerful person feel less powerful, you have a better chance of getting them to pay attention," said Brinol.
In several experiments related to the study, the researchers told college students they would be participating in two supposedly separate experiments.
In one experiment, the students role-played in a situation in which one was a boss, i.e. had a position of power, and the other was an employee who simply took orders.
"The strength of the argument made no difference to those who played the boss - they obviously weren't paying attention when they felt powerful. Those who played the employee, who were made to feel powerless, paid a lot more attention to the arguments. They weren't as confident in their own initial beliefs and weighed the arguments more carefully," the researchers said.
In the second experiment, the participants viewed a fake advertisement for a mobile phone. The ad was designed to see if participants were paying attention to the message, so half the participants received ads with particularly weak arguments for buying the phone (for example, touting that it had a broad currency converter), while the others received strong arguments (the phone could be recharged in just 5 minutes). Participants were then asked to rate how favourably they viewed the phone.
When the role-playing exercise was conducted before viewing the phone ad, those who played boss were more likely than those playing employees to rate the phone similarly, whether they received the strong or the weak arguments.
"The strength of the argument made no difference to those who played the boss - they obviously weren't paying attention when they felt powerful. Those who played the employee, who were made to feel powerless, paid a lot more attention to the arguments. They weren't as confident in their own initial beliefs and weighed the arguments more carefully," Petty said.
In a related study, the order of the experiments was essentially reversed. Participants first read the mobile phone ads, and were presented with either the strong or the weak arguments, and wrote down their thoughts while reading it. However, before they actually rated the phones, the same participants took part in the role-playing exercise in which some were the boss and some the employee. Later, they went back and rated the phones.
The analysis revealed that the bosses in the role-playing exercise were now more influenced by the quality of the arguments in the ads. Those who were low-power employees were not as influenced by the ad quality.
"Our research shows that power makes people more confident in their beliefs, but power is only one thing that affects confidence. Try to bring up something that the boss doesn't know, something that makes him less certain and that tempers his confidence. But once you do make your argument, assuming it is cogent, it is good to remind the boss that he is in charge," Petty said.
The study is published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology.