Powerful People Find Themselves Inspiring

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LAS VEGAS, NV - DECEMBER 19:  Donald Trump appears at a news conference after the 2012 Miss Universe Pageant at PH Live at Planet Hollywood Resort & Casino on December 19, 2012 in Las Vegas, Nevada.  (Photo by David Becker/Getty Images)
Photo: David Becker/Getty Imagfes

In his Oscar acceptance speech last year, Matthew McConaughey told us whom he drew his inspiration from: Matthew McConaughey. He said someone once asked him who his hero was, and that he replied, “You know who it is? It’s me in ten years.” Gerben A. Van Kleef of the University of Amsterdam uses this anecdote to open his new paper in the journal Social Psychological and Personality Science, as it nicely illustrates the point of the study he led: People who feel powerful get their inspiration from themselves, not others. 

In one experiment, Van Kleef and his team used a standard questionnaire to gauge how powerful 82 study participants felt. He then asked them to write a short essay about some event that had inspired them. The instructions were purposely a little vague, because Van Kleef wanted to see who would choose to write about a time they’d been inspired by themselves.

As he’d suspected, the more powerful people felt, the more likely they were to write about themselves. Here’s a sample from one of the powerful people’s me-me-me stories: “I used to be a pilot in the air force. … It was very inspiring to me that I … did something which almost no one else could.” And here’s an example from someone who felt less powerful: “Some time ago, a friend of mine got into an accident. … She was immensely positive and strong during her rehabilitation and that has made a great impression on me. I think she is a great example.” 

In another experiment, the researchers paired up study participants and told them to take turns telling their partner about a time they’d felt inspired. In this instance, the people who felt more powerful later told the researchers that they’d felt more inspired by their own stories than the stories their partners told. Van Kleef ventures that this might explain why it often feels like people with big egos are talking at you, and not really listening to you — as you suspected, they’re just more interested in themselves than they are in you.