Drawing the “E”

Let’s play a quick game. 

  1. Identify your dominant hand
  2. With your dominant hand, as quickly as you can, snap your fingers five times.
  3. With your dominant hand, as quickly as you can, draw a capital E on your forehead with your finger. 

Did you do it? C’mon, give it a shot.

Ok, good. Now scroll down to learn more.

There are two different ways you can draw the E. You can draw it so someone looking at your forehead could read it. Or, you can draw it so it’s readable from your perspective (and thus, backwards from someone else looking at your forehead). 

If you drew the E so you can read it, you’re currently in a high-power position. If you drew the E so someone else can read it, you’re currently in a low-power position. 

Before you get too excited (or upset) about your current power position, let’s look at the 2006 Psychological Science study that explored the implications of this little game and made some interesting findings:

  • High-power participants were three times more likely to draw a self-oriented letter E
  • In social situations, higher-power people anchored more heavily to their own vantage point while lower power people were more likely to take another person’s perspective
  • High-power people were more likely to make errors in judging emotions in others

The authors summed up the results succinctly. “Across four experiments, we found that [high] power was associated with a reduced tendency to comprehend how other individuals see the world, think about the world, and feel about the world.”

What I find most compelling is that the participants were able to be primed (i.e. influenced) into these low or high power conditions. And by nudging the participants into a particular condition, it influenced how they acted.

I could put this to good use.  When I played the game I wrote a self-oriented E, meaning I was in a high-power position (and likely less likely to express empathy). If I were to venture a guess, my constant focus on achieving goals and getting stuff done makes me more naturally inclined to be in that mode. Which, according to the study, “leads not to a conscious decision to ignore other individuals’ perspectives, but rather to a psychological state that makes perspective taking less likely.”

Maybe we can move ourselves into a lower-power, and more empathetic, frame of mind. 

The authors moved people into the low-power position in a methodical, dry way that only a University funded study can. “Participants assigned to the low-power condition were instructed to write about a personal incident in which someone else had power over them.”

This feels a bit too rigid for the real world and I doubt it’s the only way we can step into the more empathetic mode. What about writing (or visualizing) about a time when we’ve collaborated well with others? Or when we’ve been the low person on the totem pole. It’s almost the direct opposite of the lauded power pose used to boost confidence before public speaking. There are times when we don’t want to be in that power mode. Times when empathy, perspective taking, and strong emotional judgement are most important. And that’s where the low-power position comes in. 

So, how did you draw the E?

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image credit Ralf Schmitzer

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