Whether on the basketball court or in the office, psychology says that powerful people do strange, unrestrained things

Kyle Lowry and Mark Stevens at Game 3 of the NBA Finals on Wednesday. Lachlan Cunningham/Getty Images




These are some of the classifications that psychological studies have used in recent years to describe the mental states of powerful people when they’re considering other human beings.

“A growing literature shows that power energizes thought, speech, and action and orients individuals toward salient goals linked to power roles, predispositions, tasks, and opportunities,” a recent review paper said. “Power magnifies self-expression … enhancing confidence, self-regulation, and prioritisation of efforts toward advancing focal goals.”

The pattern doesn’t apply just to those who enjoy the structural power of a top job, but also to people simply made to feel powerful in a given experiment, like by recalling a time they felt in control of a situation.

“The point is that power moves people in some predictable directions on average,” Joe Magee, a New York University psychologist who studies the psychological effects of power, told Business Insider in a phone interview. It’s not so much a bias, he’s careful to note, but a cognitive tendency or propensity.

“Power affects the balance of attention of self versus others and also the kind of attention that you pay,” he says. “The most nefarious part is this dehumanization: You ascribe less human emotions to other people, and objectification, which is some combination of seeing people as less human and seeing people as instrumental in satisfying the goals you have.”

The implications: If you’re a billionaire or a CEO, you’re likely to think of the people around you in terms of how they can serve your goals, rather than appreciating the intricacies of their felt experience.

Which brings us to the shove heard around the world.

In Wednesday night’s NBA Finals matchup, the venture capitalist Mark Stevens, a minority owner in the Golden State Warriors, shoved Toronto Raptors guard Kyle Lowry after Lowry dived into the stands for a loose ball. Lowry immediately asked that Stevens be ejected.

The NBA and the Warriors followed it up with a $US500,000 fine.

“I’m inclined to say his power (social class + networks) afforded him the opportunity to sit courtside, which of course puts him in a position to shove (or to help a guy get up who has fallen to the seats),” Magee said in an email follow-up to Business Insider.

“It was probably… adrenaline or something else that led to the shove,” he added.

Power and adrenaline: That’s a game-changing cocktail.