Powerful people often tend to decide and act quickly. However, they
become more indecisive than others when the decisions are toughest to
make, a new study suggests.
Researchers found that when people who feel powerful also feel
ambivalent about a decision - torn between two equally good or bad
choices - they actually have a harder time taking action than people who
feel less powerful.
‘When people who feel powerful also feel ambivalent about a decision - torn between two equally good or bad choices - they actually have a harder time taking action than people who feel less powerful.’
That's different than when powerful people are confronted by a
simpler decision in which most evidence favors a clear choice. In those
cases, they are more decisive and act more quickly than others.
"We found that ambivalence made everyone slower in making a
decision, but it particularly affected people who felt powerful. They
took the longest to act," said Geoff Durso, lead author of the study and
doctoral student in psychology at The Ohio State University.
The study was published online in the journal Psychological Science
Richard Petty, co-author of the study and professor of psychology at
Ohio State, said other research he and his colleagues have done
suggests that feeling powerful gives people more confidence in their own
That's fine when you have a clear idea about the decision you want
to make. But if you feel powerful and also ambivalent about a decision
you face, that can make you feel even more conflicted than others would
be, he said.
"If you think both your positive thoughts and your negative thoughts
are right, you're going to become frozen and take longer to make a
decision," Petty said.
The study involved two separate experiments that recruited college
students as participants. They were told the goal of the experiments was
to understand how people make decisions about employees based on
Each participant was given 10 behaviors attributed to an employee
named Bob. Some were given a list of behaviors that were entirely
positive or entirely negative, while others were given a list of five
behaviors of Bob that were positive and five that were negative.
One of the negative behaviors was that Bob was caught stealing the
mug of a co-worker when it was left in the company kitchen. A positive
behavior was that Bob had met or beaten all but one of his earnings
goals since he was hired.
After learning about Bob, participants were asked to write about a
time in their lives when they had a lot of power or very little power
over others. This writing exercise has been shown in other studies to
induce momentary feelings of power or powerlessness among those who
complete the task.
At this point, the researchers were able to start measuring how
feelings of power interacted with feelings of ambivalence toward the
Participants were asked to rate the extent to which they felt
conflicted, undecided or mixed about their attitudes toward Bob - all
measures of ambivalence. As expected, those who were told Bob showed a
mixture of positive and negative behaviors felt much more ambivalent
toward him than those who were told his behaviors were all positive or
They were then asked how likely it would be that they would delay
making any decisions about Bob's future with the company, if they were
given such an opportunity.
When presented with an ambivalent profile for Bob, participants who
felt powerful were more likely than others to want to delay the
decision. But when the employee was presented as all-positive or
all-negative, those who felt powerful were less likely than others to
want to delay action.
After answering how much they wanted to delay the decision, the
moment of truth came for the participants. In one study, they had to
decide whether to promote Bob by clicking a key on a computer keyboard.
In a second study, they decided whether to fire him the same way.
Without their knowledge, the researchers measured how long it took participants to click the key to promote or fire Bob.
Findings showed that, across the board, people took more time to
decide when faced with the employee profile that mixed positive and
negative behaviors. But those who were feeling powerful still took
significantly longer to make their decision than did those who were
feeling relatively powerless.
"Powerful people feel more confident than others in their own
thoughts, they think their thoughts are more useful and more true. But
that can be a problem if your thought is that you're not really sure the
best way to proceed," Durso said.
"Meanwhile, people who feel less powerful are less sure about the
validity of their thoughts anyway, so they think they might as well just
make a decision."
Durso and Petty believe this interaction between power and
ambivalence can affect leaders in any role, including those in business
One example is President George W. Bush, who after his election in
2004 proclaimed that he was ready to take action: "I really didn't come
here [just] to hold the office...I came here to get some things done."
But when determining whether to withdraw or bolster American forces
in Iraq, President Bush - famously self-described as "the decider" -
stated that he would "not be rushed into making a decision." He then
delayed his decision twice over two months.
This study suggests that Bush's indecision was not surprising given
his power as president and the complex, ambivalent issue he faced.
"People in power are given the most difficult decisions. They have a
lot of conflicting information they have to process and synthesize to
make their judgment," Durso said.
"It is ironic that their feelings of power may actually make it more
difficult for them to arrive at an answer than if they felt less