The desire for power and how, when it is achieved, it can undermine and erode relationships is often used as the dramatic spur in many a novel and screenplay. But now new research has found that fiction and fact are not as far apart as we imagine.

Looking at leading figures in industry, as well as celebrities and film stars, academics from Europe and the US have found that power really can corrupt relationships. They have discovered that power can bring with it doubt about the motives of others. So that a celebrity or a chief executive, when faced with a seemingly altruistic gesture from an individual, instead of feeling pleasure, doubts the gesture and is cynical about its motives. This cynicism is then translated into distrust so that the powerful turn away from the gesture and make no attempt to develop a relationship.

“One’s star status produces a power-induced scepticism,” says Adam Galinsky, professor of ethics and decision in management at the Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University and co-author of the paper..

“This doubt prompts the question: Are they interested in me or only want access to my power? Do they love me or my celebrity?”

Prof Galinsky, with Ena Inesi, an assistant professor of organisational behaviour at London Business School and Deborah Gruenfeld, professor of organisational behaviour at Stanford Graduate School of Business say that in general kind and thoughtful actions inspire trust which in turn helps to build intimacy and bring about stronger and closer relationships. But where the powerful are concerned the opposite is true.

“Their power impedes their ability to engage in the basics of relationship-building behaviours,” says Prof Inesi. “Reciprocity and trust are key building blocks of relationship development.”

The authors suggest that the powerful remember that not everyone is seeking to gain something from them.

“By being aware of this process, the powerful may give themselves a chance to find true and meaningful connections,” adds Prof Galinsky.

The paper will appear in a forthcoming issue of the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology.

● How influenced are you by other people, especially when it comes to purchasing decisions? The latest research from the Rotman School of Management at the University of Toronto has found that like it or not, we are more likely to buy an item if we know that others have bought it as well.

The study, by co-authors Ming Hu, an assistant professor of operations management and Mengze Shi an associate professor of marketing at Rotman and PhD student Jiahua Wu, looked at group buying websites. These websites, which have become increasingly popular, offer products or services at a substantial discount as long as a minimum number of customers sign up to the deal.

The trio were eager to discover why those group buying sites that have only recently launched on the market are more successful than those operating 10 years ago. The researchers designed two analytical models: in the first one no one knew how many buyers had come along before them, while in the second buyers were well aware of how many people were before them.

The second sequential model was the most successful according to the researchers because “it eliminates uncertainty for those coming later to the deal and improves the confidence of those who sign on early” as they can then keep an eye on those who sign up later.

Although buyers who pledge their money for a product receive refunds if the deal is called off, nevertheless say the researchers purchasers still feel a psychological loss and may be “more willing to sign on to a deal they feel is guaranteed to happen”.

The paper, Simultaneous versus sequential group-buying mechanisms appears online at the Social Sciences Research network.

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