It may not be lonely at the top

Having less power leads to more loneliness and more power reduces it, says a study by two professors of Kellogg School of Management


Photo: iStockphoto
Photo: iStockphoto

It’s lonely at the top. We have heard this adage very often and it projects the image of an all-powerful CEO surrounded by minions, yet feeling isolated and alone.

Well, not anymore. In reality, the opposite may be true, according to a new research. In other words, having less power leads to more loneliness and more power reduces it.

The research was conducted by professor Jon Maner and associate professor Adam Waytz of Kellogg School of Management, Northwestern University. They conducted their research separately but came up with the same findings.

Waytz conducted eight studies to test the hypothesis that high power levels decrease loneliness. One of the studies involved 309 participants completing two questionnaires, rating their agreement with statements such as “I can get others to do what I want” and “I lack companionship”.

The study proved that the more power respondents reported to have, the less loneliness they claimed to experience.

Another study had 202 participants completing a loneliness questionnaire, where each of the participants were randomly assigned a boss or a subordinate role.

Each “boss” then assigned tasks to a “subordinate”, after which all the participants were asked: “Thinking back to the role that you were assigned in this study, how much power do you feel you had?” The bosses reported much greater feelings of power and lower levels of loneliness than the subordinates did.

Conversely, Maner’s research involved two studies that highlighted the ways in which having a low placement in a social hierarchy affects loneliness. In one of the studies, 145 undergraduate participants were randomly assigned a high-power, low-power, or control status.

High-power participants wrote an essay about a time when they had power over others, while low-power participants wrote an essay about a time when others had power over them. Participants in the control group wrote an essay on an unrelated topic. All participants then had to rate their level of interest in a fictitious campus service that would facilitate student friendships.

“The rationale was that if people are feeling temporarily powerless and therefore have a strong need for social connection, they should be especially interested in using the student service to connect with other students and peers,” says Maner. “That’s exactly what we found.”

While both professors prove their hypothesis, they are also quick to issue some caveats. Maner, for instance, talking about the study in which he asked people to write about a time they felt powerful, says: “These are college students, and so many of them really haven’t experienced big opportunities to have power over others, but they’ve had plenty of opportunities to feel powerless. For example, there’s a power differential between them and their instructors. So I think it was easier for us to get people feeling powerless than to get them feeling powerful.”

Another issue that Maner points to is the fact that each of us move across several different spheres, each with its own potential hierarchy—the workplace, one’s family life and social circle. It may well be possible to occupy a high place in one of those spheres and a low place in another one. This may also affect a person’s levels of loneliness. More research is needed to figure that out.

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