An implication of meritocracies is that individuals who lack power are low achievers because they are less capable or less motivated than those who acquire power. Smith et al. propose, alternatively, that powerless people often achieve less than powerful people because lacking power itself fundamentally alters cognitive functioning and increases vulnerability to performance decrements during complex executive tasks.
In a experiment carried out on 101 Dutch university students, simply assigning each participant to be either a superior or a subordinate in a computer-based task altered their performance on tests of executive function. (Participants were told that the superior would direct and evaluate the subordinate. This evaluation would purportedly determine the subordinate's payment for the experiment, whereas the superior would be paid a fixed amount.) Smith et al. found that the powerless were less effective than the powerful at standard tests evaluating ability to update, inhibition, and planning. Because existing research suggests that the powerless have difficulty distinguishing between what is goal relevant and what is goal irrelevant in the environment, a further experiment was carried out to establish that the executive-function impairment associated with low power is driven by goal neglect.
This work consistent with the idea that the cognitive alterations arising from powerlessness may help foster stable social hierarchies. The results also have implications for management and organizations. In many industries (e.g., health care, electric power), errors can be costly. Increasing employees' sense of power could lead to improved executive functioning, decreasing the likelihood of catastrophic errors.