Friday, April 06, 2007

Power, Money and the link with Behavioural Inhibition

A Ferrari Enzo
The focus on the pay bonanza earned by new Ford Motor Co. CEO Alan Mulally for four months on the job in 2006, has again raised the issue of when enough is enough when it comes to hired-hands hoovering up for themselves and their families, as much as they can lay their hands on.

Mulally earned $28.2 million from Sept 1st, 2006 after joining from Boeing Co. to restore profit. Mulally's total compensation in 2005 at Boeing, his last full year with that company, was $9.96 million, including $7.58 million in long-term incentive pay. Ford had a $12.7 billion loss for 2006.

At a certain point, as money keeps piling in, the super-rich can lose track of how much they actually have (SEE: Who cleans up at Goldman Sachs?) but lots of money confers power and status.

In the age of globalisation, where superearners take the lion's share, while the earnings of many workers in the Developed World are under threat from free trade, there are serious long-term implications.

Lots of money also makes people behave like idiots!

The experience of US comedian Eddie Griffin in writing off film producer Daniel Sadek's $1.5 million Ferrari Enzo, after piloting the hyper exotic car into concrete retaining wall, a year after Swedish videogame tycoon Stefan Eriksson smashed his Enzo — one of only 400 ever made — into a telephone pole, had prompted Sadek to say: “Eddie came out of the crash OK”, and that “A lot of worse things are happening in the world.”

Richard Conniff, author of The Natural History of the Rich: A Field Guide, writes in the New York Times: So what exactly constitutes a bad day in this rarefied little world? Did the casino owner Steve Wynn cross the mark when he put his elbow through a Picasso he was about to sell for $139 million? Did Mel (“I Own Malibu”) Gibson sense bad-day emanations when he started on a bigoted tirade while seated drunk in the back of a sheriff’s car? And if dumb stuff like this comes so easy to these people, how is it that they’re the ones with all the money?

Conniff refers to an experiment lead by Professor Dacher Keltner, a psychologist at University of California - Berkeley, who says that power and status imbue almost every facet of social interaction, from linguistic convention to the economy of emotional expression. Keltner also says that elevated social status leads to disinhibited social behaviour.

Mugshot of actor Mel Gibson - - A report on Gibson's behaviour following his arrest for drunk driving in July 2006, said that once inside the Sheriff's car, a source directly connected with the case said that Gibson began banging himself against the seat. The report says Gibson told the deputy, "You mother f****r. I'm going to f*** you." The report also says "Gibson almost continually [sic] threatened me saying he 'owns Malibu' and will spend all of his money to 'get even' with me."

The report says Gibson then launched into a barrage of anti-Semitic statements: "F*****g Jews... The Jews are responsible for all the wars in the world." Gibson then asked the deputy, "Are you a Jew?"

Researchers led by Keltner took groups of three ordinary volunteers and randomly put one of them in charge. Each trio had a half-hour to work through a boring social survey. Then a researcher came in and left a plateful of precisely five cookies. Care to guess which volunteer typically grabbed an extra cookie? The volunteer who had randomly been assigned the power role was also more likely to eat it with his mouth open, spew crumbs on partners and get cookie detritus on his face and on the table.

It reminded the researchers of powerful people they had known in real life. One of them, for instance, had attended meetings with a magazine mogul who ate raw onions and slugged vodka from the bottle, but failed to share these amuse-bouches with his guests. Another had been through an oral exam for his doctorate at which one faculty member not only picked his ear wax, but held it up to dandle lovingly in the light.

Conniff says that as stupid behaviours go, none of this is in a class with slamming somebody else’s Ferrari into a concrete wall. But science advances by tiny steps.

The researchers went on to theorize that getting power causes people to focus so keenly on the potential rewards, like money, sex, public acclaim or an extra chocolate-chip cookie — not necessarily in that order, or frankly, any order at all, but preferably all at once — that they become oblivious to the people around them.

Indeed, the people around them may abet this process, since they are often subordinates intent on keeping the boss happy. So for the boss, it starts to look like a world in which the traffic lights are always green (and damn the pedestrians).

Professor Keltner and his fellow researchers describe it as an instance of “approach/inhibition theory” in action: As power increases, it fires up the behavioral approach system and shuts down behavioural inhibition.

And thus the Fast Forward Personality is born and put on the path to the concrete barrier.

The corollary is that as the rich and powerful increasingly focus on potential rewards, powerless types notice the likely costs and become more inhibited.

The bottom line for Conniff is: Without power, people tend to play it safe. Given power, even you and I, would soon end up living large and acting like idiots.

Power, Approach, and Inhibition

This article examines how power influences behaviour. Elevated power is associated with increased rewards and freedom and thereby activates approach-related tendencies. Reduced power is associated with increased threat, punishment, and social constraint and thereby activates inhibition-related tendencies.