In the previous article (Raj, n.d.), we have seen how power can be viewed as an omnipresent entity in the web and, largely, in the social sphere. This article will deal with the intricacies of how power relations shape our world view by understanding the impact of power on the mind. This can be done effectively by understanding the dimension of power and the role it plays in the cognitive abstraction of the human mind.

Firstly, what is power? Power generally encompasses the ability to do/enact. Power has been conceptualised in terms of the potential to influence others (Dépret and Fiske 1993). Power relations are common in the social world and forms one of the major components of our lives (Dépret and Fiske 1993; Guinote 2015). These asymmetries play a pivotal role on the ways individuals feel, think and act (Dépret and Fiske 1993). Thus, power forms an important dimension which can be analysed under the lens of cognitive science so that a better understanding of the impact of power relations in our lives can be achieved.

Theories of Power

From an evolutionary point of view, the construct of power in a social arrangement enabled the resolution of group-solving functions (Guinote 2015). However, the possession of power (or the lack thereof) has shown certain impacts on our cognitive selves which are even manifested in our physical actions. The three theories of power discussed below give an insight into how power impacts our cognition.

  • Approach Theory of Power : According to this theory, power results in a positive emotional state of the working memory, yielding positive, dis-inhibited outlooks. This reward-seeking behaviour implies that power directs attention towards rewarding stimuli. (Keltner, Gruenfeld, and Anderson 2003; Dépret and Fiske 1993; Guinote 2015)

  • Social Attention Theory : This theory states that power holders try to minimise their cognitive usage while making judgements. Thus, social actors tend to conform to stereotypes to relate to broader social aspects because of the readily available heuristics associated with stereotypes. (Dépret and Fiske 1993)

  • Situated Focus Theory : This theory also proposes that power affects motivation and information processing in ways that lead to more situated responses. Power holders are said to be reliant on any accessible constructs. They process information selectively in line with the constructs loaded in the working memory on a moment-to-moment basis as opposed to their powerless counterparts who tend to deliberate more to get to a judgement. (Guinote 2015; Dépret and Fiske 1993)

It is important to note here that these these theories aren’t independent of each other. They try to model behaviour observed in the real world. The accessibility of constructs can be based on a top-down or a bottom-up view. Top-down (internal) orientation refers to goal-attainment, subjective experience, motivations etc whereas the bottom-up (external) view refers to the environmental cues which are perceived and acted on by the mind. The social attention theory emphasizes mainly on the top-down view of power holders, whereas the situated focus theory claims that both the bottom-up and the top-down constructs are acted upon by power holders. Experiments based on these theories are conducted with the help of priming. Power is an attribute than can be primed onto a set of people. (Dépret and Fiske 1993)

Cognitive Analysis of Power

In this section, we shall explore how power impacts each of the elements of the cognitive toolbox. Broadly, people with power can construct judgements based on any readily accessible heuristics unlike powerless people who tend to deliberate more to get to a judgement, i.e., power holders readily utilise System 1 responses to get to a judgement whereas powerless people tend to rely on the more reasoned System 2 response.

Firstly, how is the loading and morphing of constructs from the long term memory to the short term memory impacted by power? It is important to note that power holders are often primed to a positive emotional state as they are in a reward-rich environment. Thus, power holders have frequent access to goal-oriented ends and work to achieve these with the constructs that get activated (chronically or temporarily). The powerless, however, tend to forage more as they do not possess goal-orientations and are often on the look out for threats. As a result, power increases the selectivity of construct activation leading to the efficient pursuit of goals (Dépret and Fiske 1993).

Once constructs are activated, they are used to guide judgement and action. Power holders tend to trust accessible constructs readily in contrast to powerless individuals who tend to deliberate and seek more evidence before making judgements (Guinote 2015). As a result of this, power can decrease a person’s tendency to conform to group opinions (conformation bias), and they are also less affected by persuasive messages, unlike their powerless counterparts. Power also clouds the mirror neuron effect as the mind tends to anchor perspectives too heavily on their own vantage point (Guinote 2015). Also, power holders tend to rely on episodic constructs that get activated, i.e., subjective experiences and even these guide their judgements. In addition, it is important to note that power holders don’t only act at will. In the absence of prior goals, environmental cues can heavily impact the judgement made by power holders. This is in line with the situated focus theory of power. In summary, power holders show greater trust in their judgements and apply any accessible constructs than powerless individuals.

Secondly, how does power affect the cognitive tool of attention? Attention serves as the pathway between perception and the constructs that are activated. When in a power position, individuals naturally save their attentional resources, paying attention only to information that aids the satisfaction of their needs or the attainment of goals or paying attention to information that is salient in the environment (Dépret and Fiske 1993). This is achievable because power also facilitates a positive emotional state reducing the need to forage for threats. Thus, power holders possess the ability to selectively focus attention on the constructs activated from a moment-to-moment basis. Thus, they have the ability to consistently deem some types of information to be more important than others, while powerless individuals tend to weigh out different types of information equally (Guinote 2015). To sum it up, power enables beamformed and directed attention, inhibition of distracting information and flexible processing. In contrast, a lack of power results in reduced cognitive control. They are prone to interference and unwanted influences (Guinote 2015).

Lastly, If power results in situated variability, how can one reconcile the major trends in which power holders act? Stability in the behaviour of power holders comes from chronically accessible constructs such as dispositions and goals. However, these constructs often compete with the temporarily accessible ones stimulated by environmental cues. So, in the absence of external cues, power holders act in line with their dispositions and motivations, but in the presence of external elements, they move further away from their dispositions than powerless individuals.

To sum it up, power ensures efficiency in all the components of the cognitive arsenal enabling fast judgement and action, propmt decision making and relentless pursuit of goals. Thus, the very presence of power (or lack thereof) can alter the way we understand and respond to the world. (Dépret and Fiske 1993)

Power and the Role of Trust

So far, we have seen how possessing/not possessing power can have an impact on our minds. But, how does our mind interpret a third person in a position of power (or the lack thereof)? Experiments have shown that participants in the high-power condition were significantly less trusting. Furthermore, having low power amplifies people’s hope that their exchange partner will turn out to be benevolent, which then leads to their decision to trust (Martin Reimann, n.d.).

So, why does this happen? This can be explained with the help of motivated cognition (“Motivated Cognition,” n.d.). Motivated cognition refers to the bias of personal motives in various types of thought processes such as memory, information processing, reasoning, judgment, and decision making. Such motivational biases persist due to critical psychological needs. We have seen before that people in powerless positions are usually in a defensive emotional state pertaining to their lack of cognitive control. Thus, they are motivated to see their powerful counterpart as more trustworthy in order to avoid the anxiety inherently attached to their feelings of dependence. This enables people to protect their limited emotional resources and protect themselves from constant survival thoughts. Powerful people don’t trust as easy because, as we have seen earlier, they are often in a positive emotional state and utilise their cognitive resources to maintain cognitive control.

Thus, these positive illusions tend to dominate over reasoned decision making in a social setup (i.e., system 1 response via trust over system 2 response), allowing power to persist and maintain cohesion in power relations. This also highlights the importance of resistance (Raj, n.d.) within a social setup because the populous can become disillusioned by the ones with power.


Dépret, Eric, and Susan T. Fiske. 1993. “Social Cognition and Power: Some Cognitive Consequences of Social Structure as a Source of Control Deprivation.” In Control Motivation and Social Cognition, edited by Gifford Weary, Faith Gleicher, and Kerry L. Marsh, 176–202. New York, NY: Springer New York.

Guinote, Ana. 2015. “Social Cognition of Power.” In, 547–69.

Keltner, Dacher, Deborah Gruenfeld, and Cameron Anderson. 2003. “Power, Approach, and Inhibition.” Psychological Review 110 (May): 265–84.

Martin Reimann, Oliver Schilke. n.d. “How Power Shpaes Trust.”

“Motivated Cognition.” n.d.

Raj, Kocherla Nithin. n.d. “Power Relations in the Web.”