ISSN 1671-3710
CN 11-4766/R

Advances in Psychological Science ›› 2023, Vol. 31 ›› Issue (1): 108-115.doi: 10.3724/SP.J.1042.2023.00108

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The influence of power on interpersonal sensitivity

KOU Dongxiao, WANG Xiaoyu()   

  1. School of Business, Shanghai University of Finance and Economics, Shanghai 200433, China
  • Received:2020-09-15 Online:2023-01-15 Published:2022-10-13
  • Contact: WANG Xiaoyu


Interpersonal sensitivity reflects one’s ability to understand others’ feelings and thoughts. Power is one of the factors that could influence interpersonal sensitivity. Up to now, it has been controversial to determine whether people with high power or low power could better understand the feelings or thoughts of others. People with high (vs. low) power status have long been thought to have poorer interpersonal sensitivity. The underlying reason is that people with high power (vs. low) have less willingness to understand others. However, this viewpoint has been challenged by recent findings, which suggest that people with high power tend to have stronger interpersonal sensitivity than those with low power. In some specific circumstances, power could enhance interpersonal sensitivity, such as when people with high power take an other-focused perspective or have a higher prosocial tendency, etc.

These two opposing viewpoints can be explained theoretically in a variety of ways. The approach-inhibition theory suggests that individuals with high power are more likely to adopt a top-down and heuristic information processing mode, which leads to their lower interpersonal sensitivity. However, those with low power tend to use a more elaborated information processing mode, which results in higher interpersonal sensitivity. Nevertheless, when considering from the emotional perspective of approach-inhibition theory, it could lead to an opposite conclusion. For example, some studies suggest that individuals with high power tend to experience more positive emotions, which contribute to their higher interpersonal sensitivity. In addition, social distance theory has also been mentioned. Previous related research indicates that power increases social distance among people, which in turn decreases their motivation to care about others and leads to lower interpersonal sensitivity. Therefore, there is still a dearth of theoretical analysis to clearly explain the relationship between power and interpersonal sensitivity.

This study, embedded within an integrative cognitive framework which also involves emotions and motivations, seeks to unveil the mechanism of how power exerts an influence on interpersonal relationship. From the perspective of cognition, it shows that individuals with high power have greater interpersonal sensitivity in more complex situations, and those with low power are more interpersonally sensitive in less complex situations, which suggests that the relationship between power, cognition and interpersonal sensitivity is situationally dependent. From the view of emotions, research has found that emotional experiences can broaden attention and scope of cognition, leading people to adopt a more elaborated information processing mode, and facilitate their memory ability, which is similar to the explanation for why individuals with high power show greater interpersonal sensitivity in more complex situations from the perspective of cognition. By taking an integral framework of cognitions, emotions and motivations, contradictory views in previous research can be explained in a more general way. In future research, according to this integral framework, how individual and social factors influence the relationship between power and interpersonal sensitivity could be examined.

Key words: power, interpersonal sensitivity, emotion, motivation, cognition

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