Why Thoughts of Death Make Us Yearn for Power

Written

Why Thoughts of Death Make Us Yearn for Power

Confronted by their mortality, men, more than women, seek power to ease their anxiety.
A man broodily looking over a city skyline from a high window | Reuters/Christian Hartmann
People who feel power tend to believe they are immune from harm. | Reuters/Christian Hartmann

It’s our central existential dilemma: that even as we are living, we are dying. To deal with the anxiety and fear that causes, people tend to gravitate toward worldviews and activities that give their lives meaning and reinforce a belief that they are part of something greater. Now researchers have discovered another way people cope: They crave power.

A new paper coauthored by Stanford Graduate School of Business professor Jeffrey Pfeffer found that when people are reminded of their mortality, their desire for power increases. Pfeffer also found that men feel this impulse much more strongly than women do.

“People who feel more powerful are less anxious about death,” he says.

The most widely accepted explanation of how people deal with the realization of their own mortality is known as terror management theory (TMT). It was developed in the 1980s by a group of researchers at the University of Kansas who investigated how people cope with the inevitability of their own death. Pfeffer and colleague Peter Belmi, a professor at the University of Virginia’s Darden School of Business, based their new research on TMT, which suggests that the prospect of death motivates us to protect ourselves by bolstering our feelings of self-worth. And previous research has shown that feeling powerful is one way to increase an individual’s feelings of self-esteem, says Pfeffer: “When people feel powerful they tend to believe they are less vulnerable and more immune from harm.”

The two researchers conducted six experiments that involved heightened perceptions of power and an increased awareness of death. Several of the studies asked participants to write an essay about one of two things. One group was asked to write about what will happen to them physically when they die; the other group was asked to write about dental pain. After finishing their essays, they were asked to rate their level of agreement or disagreement with 10 statements, such as, “I would like to be in a powerful position in an organization,” and “In a group setting, I want to be the dominant figure.”

The prospect of death motivates us to protect ourselves by bolstering our feelings of self-worth.

In another study, participants played something called the “Organizational Hierarchy Game.” Each person was assigned a role of either a CEO or a subordinate, and then asked to do tasks that fit their roles. The CEO group might read confidential salary documents, while the subordinates might type memos. Participants then watched two videos: a weather report and a medical autopsy. After each viewing they were asked to quantify the degree to which they felt tense, upset, anxious, nervous, or worried. Although all felt heightened anxiety after watching the autopsy video, subordinates were even more anxious than CEOs. Those who felt more powerful found the autopsy video less disturbing. “Power buffers people from death anxiety by providing them with psychological security,” the researchers wrote.

Their studies also found that when people are reminded of their mortality, men are more likely than women to seek power. Although there’s no definitive way to know the reason why genders respond differently, Pfeffer thinks it has to do with cultural norms.

“It’s much more socially acceptable for men to seek power than it is for women,” Pfeffer says. “Yet when women are in powerful roles, they feel the same decrease in anxiety around mortality as men, so we know the motivation is there for both.” One of the experiments in their study found that even a week after being reminded of their mortality, men were still engaging in power-seeking behaviors. “We discovered that just thinking about mortality induces a change in behavior over time,” says Pfeffer.

Power, of course, plays an important role in organizations, often determining hierarchical structures and influencing how decisions are made. Yet in the corporate world, it’s not always easy to get people to pursue powerful leadership roles. They may be reluctant to take on those jobs because of the burden of responsibility that comes with them or the sociability and networking those positions require. One way for managers to tackle that — for their male employees, at least — may be by appealing to an individual’s existential motives. Having men reflect, for example, on what kind of legacy they hope to leave behind could strengthen their motivation to seek out challenging leadership roles.

Female employees, for whom reminders of mortality don’t work the same way they do for men, shouldn’t be seen as lacking interest in having power. Because women feel a stronger need to conform to standards they view as culturally acceptable or appropriate, managers should look for other ways to motivate them to take on leadership positions. However, just knowing the desire for power is driven, in part, by anxiety about death may also give managers new insight into why some employees seek power and others don’t. Status and material wealth are certainly part of that desire, but it could also be that some employees seeking power are just coming to terms with their own mortality.

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