First comes love, then comes the realization that we are navigating life’s journey with another person who may have different thoughts, feelings, and beliefs than us. How do we deal with having differing viewpoints from our romantic partners?
To find the answer, I studied power and perspective-taking in relationships.
Perspective-taking is a fundamental social skill that helps us smoothly steer through the many bumps in the road, from picking out a thoughtful anniversary gift to helping us reach a compromise on a contentious issue. When people are able to consider their partner’s point of view, both they and their partners report being more satisfied with their relationship. Although this basic skill is fundamental and beneficial, not everyone is good at perspective-taking, particularly in their romantic relationships.
So who is good at perspective-taking and who is lacking? To answer this question, I turned to the research on power. I was curious to find out whether feeling powerful in a romantic relationship might lead people to be better, or worse, perspective-takers.
Power affects how people think, feel, and interact with others. Although thinking about powerful people might bring to mind the caricature of a power-hungry CEO, the reality is that power is not just in the workplace, it is part of all of our relationships, shaping how we interact with our parents, friends, and romantic partners.
So how exactly does it shape our relationships? Or, in this case, our ability to step into our partner’s shoes?
Well, the old adage, “power corrupts,” suggests that powerful people should be selfish, caring only about getting their own way and paying little attention to what their romantic partners are thinking and feeling. And there is research to support this—people are less likely to take strangers’ perspectives when they feel powerful and in families, powerful members are less likely to perspective-take.
But on the other hand, for romantic relationships to survive, people can’t just be selfish—they have to think about what is best for the relationship, which means considering their partner’s point of view. Power helps people focus on and pursue their goals, so perhaps power might actually help people become better perspective-takers in romantic relationships, because it focuses them on maintaining their relationship?
So what is it? Does power breed selfishness, making people worse perspective-takers, or does it help people become more empathic? We conducted four studies to test this question, and the not-so-simple answer is that it depends.
It depends on who you are. Power doesn’t simply help or hurt, instead it seems to magnify. More selfish people were worse perspective-takers when they felt more powerful in their relationships, compared to when they felt less powerful. In contrast, people who were less selfish tended to be good perspective-takers regardless of whether or not they felt powerful.
What do I mean by “selfish people”? I think of this as a catch-all phrase to distinguish people who are primarily focused on their own needs and goals versus people who are primarily focused on the needs of others—and concerned with making sure everyone gets the best possible outcome. In our studies, we measured selfishness in many different ways, including how grateful for their partners people were (Study 1), how much they tended to incorporate their partners into their self-concept (Study 2), and their choices in an economic game that either maximized their own selfish outcomes or more prosocial, joint outcomes (Studies 3 and 4). Each of these surveys tapped into a different aspect of being more or less selfish but they yielded similar results.
In Study 1, people who were less grateful for their romantic partners reported being less likely to try to take their partner’s perspective after they thought about a time when they had a lot of power in their relationship compared to less grateful people who thought about a time when they had little power in their relationship. More grateful people reported being better perspective-takers regardless of their power.
In Studies 2 and 3, we found the same “it depends” results. We followed people for one and two-week periods to see how daily fluctuations in power influenced whether people considered their partner’s point of view. People who were less relational and more selfish were less likely to take their partner’s perspective on days when they said they felt more powerful in their relationship compared to days when they said felt less powerful. People who were more prosocial were motivated to perspective take regardless of how powerful they felt.
In our last study, Study 4, we brought couples in to the laboratory and randomly assigned one partner to be more powerful by having them pick the topic and be “in charge” of a conflict conversation. We then had them tell us what they thought their partner was feeling, and compared that to what their partner said they were actually feeling during the conversation. More selfish people were worse at understanding what their partner was feeling if they were in charge than if their partners were in charge. More prosocial people were not affected by power.
Interestingly, the most empathically accurate people in this study were selfish people whose partners were in charge. This is in line with some research that suggests more selfish people tend to be concerned with protecting their own outcomes so when they find themselves in a low-power position during a conflict, they may pay particularly close attention to their partners’ emotions in order to protect their self-interests.
What is the take away message from this set of studies?
We definitely found that some people were better perspective takers than others, but as is true in most research, the story is not as simple as being able to say that power helps or hurts.
Instead, it seems that in romantic relationships, whether or not people consider their partner’s point of view might depend both on how selfish they are and whether or not they feel powerful. More selfish people may indeed find that power corrupts, whereas people who are more focused on others may be buffered from the corrupting effects of power.