Powerful People's Inspiration? Studies Indicate It's Mostly Themselves

A bulb hangs inside a restaurant in Madrid December 23, 2013. Andrea Comas/Reuters

If you ask most people who or what inspires them, they are typically able to rattle off a handful of luminaries, friends or family members they look up to.

But powerful people are an anomaly, according to a new set of studies published Wednesday in the Social Psychological & Personal Science journal: They often look not at others but at themselves as sources of inspiration. Results from four studies conducted in the United States and Europe suggest that such people, who tend to have more resources, typically prioritize their own interests —and voices—over others' in social situations and reap emotional rewards in doing so.

For the purpose of the studies, inspiration is defined as "a state of mind that involves motivation, evocation and transcendance," and something that actively energizes the individual, while power is "an asymmetric control over valued resources" in relation to social interactions. But the origins of inspiration are largely unknown, especially in social situations, and so the researchers sought to understand what (or who) exactly dictates inspiration, and why it is that some people are more inspired by others while some are by themselves.

Researchers in one of the studies, conducted at the University of Amsterdam, drew data from 239 participants, all undergraduate psychology students. They created two scales in order to measure the students' levels of inspiration in social situations, probing with self-prioritizing questions such as, ''When talking with other people, I often become enthusiastic about my own ideas," and another relating to inspiration from others' experiences. Those who scored the highest on the "personal sense of power" scale reported deriving more satisfaction from their own experiences than those of others.

Similarly, a study from the University of California, Berkeley, revealed that participants who exhibited greater power reported that during conversations they felt more inspired by their own stories than their partners' stories.

A third study, also conducted at the University of Amsterdam, suggested that people exhibiting a lower sense of power weren't as able to spin inspiring stories on a whim when compared with people who considered themselves more powerful.

The subjects of the fourth study who were considered more powerful reported a greater sense of achievement after writing about their experiences than when writing about others' experiences.

The article in Social Psychology & Personal Science says all four studies point to the hypothesis that powerful people derive the strongest inspiration from their own experiences and minds. However, the authors are careful to mention that the powerful may be less prone to be active listeners, rather than dominant talkers, and far less likely to consider others' emotions during face-to-face conversations. Their sense of inspiration may even be undermined when listening to others' inspiring tales, the research shows.

Inspiration, like power, is an abstract term that is difficult to classify, as its definition varies drastically depending on the individual. But social psychologists seem to be gettng closer to understanding the source of people's motivations: Just last month, another team of researchers published a study that demonstrated the powerful often resort to cheating for their own gain, while those who aren't powerful often cheat to benefit others.