Power and thinking dispositions9 min read

In a previous post, Gordon Brett made a compelling argument for moving sociological work on dual-process cognition forward. In a nutshell, Gordon encouraged sociologists to begin to study structural and situational variation in the extent to which people rely on one cognitive mode (e.g., intuition, System I) versus the other (deliberation, System II), rather than focusing on the ideal-typical distinction between System I (intuitive, automatic) and System II (deliberative, reflective) thinking for its own sake.

As proof of concept, Gordon pointed to a recent Sociological Science piece co-authored with Andrew Miles (Brett & Miles, 2021) showing systematic variation in the extent to which people report relying on “rational” versus “intuitive” cognitive styles by structural locations and social categories familiar to sociologists, such as age, gender, and education. For instance, Brett and Miles (2021) show, using data from the 2012 Measuring Morality Survey, that men are more likely to report relying on a rational over an intuitive cognitive style, as are the most educated people. In the conclusion to that paper, Brett and Miles encouraged

…researchers to build on this work to better understand how and why individuals vary in their use of cognitive processes. In particular, scholars should attempt to replicate our results using multivariate analyses in large, representative data sets and cross-validate findings using multiple measures of cognitive processing…Once we have a clear understanding of how cognitive styles differ and for whom, scholars can begin to investigate the social and cultural mechanisms that translate particular demographic characteristics into differences in cognitive processing (2021, p. 111).

Regarding the last task of coming up with mechanisms and theoretical accounts linking social structural location to cognitive style, Brett and Miles pointed to multiple plausible options. These include the Simmelian proposal that urbanity and the money economy break habits and tilt people toward abstraction and rationality, the Bourdieusian proposal that certain scholastic institutions lead to people developing dispositions towards intellectualist thinking styles removed from action, and the classic Kohn and Schooler argument linking occupational complexity to more reflexive thinking dispositions among members of certain classes.

These are all fascinating and worthwhile avenues deserving of future work and attention. Here, nevertheless, I would like to point to one existing (and generic) theoretical mechanism, not touched upon by Brett and Miles, linking naturally to sociological concerns with inequality and stratification, and for which suggestive evidence of its effects on thinking dispositions already exists: Namely, power. Recent work in the psychology of power links this factor to thinking styles and thinking dispositions (Keltner et al. 2003; Smith & Trope, 2006). Suggestively, different theoretical approaches make conflicting predictions (while pointing to distinct sociocognitive mechanisms), indicating that this could be an area where cross-disciplinary collaboration and theorizing within the larger umbrella of cognitive social science may be generative and productive.

Take, for instance, Keltner and collaborators approach-inhibition theory (see Keltner et al. 2003 for the initial statement and Cho & Keltner, 2020 for a recent review of the evidence). This theory postulates a link between perceived or actual power, and therefore occupancy of powerful positions and cognitive style (among other cognitive and affective outcomes). The theory predicts that because power both facilitates action and agency while activating “approach” tendencies toward desired goals, being in a powerful position leads persons to rely on automatic rather than deliberate cognition, as automatic cognition has a more direct link to action (Vaisey, 2009). On the other hand, being in a less powerful position activates action inhibition and threat detection tendencies, thus encouraging more reflective and deliberative thought (Keltner et al., 2003).

Interestingly, the predictions of the approach-avoidance theory conflict with that of another well-documented approach, namely, Chaiken and Liberman’s construal level theory (see Rim et al., 2013 for a review), which also provides a linkage between power and cognitive style. According to construal level theory, being in a powerful position implies being “removed” (distant) from the hustle and bustle, leading to an experience of psychological distance from less powerful others, thus encouraging abstract levels of “construal” of the cognitive representations used to make sense of others and the situation (in contrast to the use of more concrete representations). Because abstract representations tend to be processed more reflectively, construal level theory predicts powerful people are more likely to default to a more deliberative, less automatic thinking style. Experimental work yields evidence consistent with this approach. Interestingly, the association is bidirectional: Manipulating one’s sense of power encourages abstract thinking (Smith & Trope, 2006), and encouraging an abstract thinking style leads to an enhanced sense of power (Smith et al., 2008).

Usually, different theories in the social and behavioral sciences making conflicting predictions about the link between similar antecedents and outcomes is cause for despair. In this case, I think this may be an opportunity for cross-disciplinary convergence and theory-building. After all, since Weber (2019), sociologists have been interested in power, in its many forms (Reed, 2013). Gordon’s call for “a sociology of thinking dispositions,” coupled with evidence from the psychology of power linking a favorite sociological concept to thinking styles is thus more than suggestive, opening up opportunities for sociologists to make substantive contributions to this area.

One possibility is of course, that different dimensions and features of the experience of power affect thinking dispositions in countervailing ways. For instance, the oft-noted association between more deliberate thinking styles and a masculine gender identity (for which Brett & Miles find evidence) is consistent with construal level theory, given the obvious and well-documented link between people’s gender identification and the structure of power in society (Risman, 2018). The same goes for Brett & Miles’s (2021, Figure 2) suggestive finding that education leads to more rational thinking dispositions, but only for those at the very top of the educational scale, suggesting that it is education’s serving as the conduit for occupying powerful positions in contemporary credential societies (rather than the “formalizing” substantive effect of education on abstract thought) that accounts for this linkage.

The negative effect of age on rational thinking dispositions uncovered by Brett and Miles (2021, Figure 2), on the other hand, seems more consistent with the approach-avoidance mechanism, given the association of older age with less power and influence in Euro-American societies (Cuddy et al., 2005). This suggests that different social locations may activate distinct socio-cognitive processes, leading to different linkages between social position and thinking disposition contingent on the mechanism that is activated. How the social locations activate each mechanism as well as the particular mechanisms involved opens up exciting new questions for future work.


Brett, G., & Miles, A. (2021). Who Thinks How? Social Patterns in Reliance on Automatic and Deliberate Cognition. Sociological Science, 8, 96–118.

Cho, M., & Keltner, D. (2020). Power, approach, and inhibition: empirical advances of a theory. Current Opinion in Psychology, 33, 196–200.

Cuddy, A. J., Norton, M. I., & Fiske, S. T. (2005). This old stereotype: The pervasiveness and persistence of the elderly stereotype. Journal of social issues61(2), 267-285.

Keltner, D., Gruenfeld, D. H., & Anderson, C. (2003). Power, approach, and inhibition. Psychological Review, 110(2), 265–284.

Reed, I. A. (2013). Power: Relational, discursive, and performative dimensions. Sociological Theory31(3), 193-218.

Rim, S., Trope, Y., Liberman, N., & Shapira, O. (2013). The Highs and Lows of Mental Representation: A Construal Level Perspective on the Structure of Knowledge. In D. Carlston (Ed.), The Oxford Handbook of Social Cognition. Oxford University Press.

Risman, B. J. (2018). Gender as a social structure. In Handbook of the Sociology of Gender (pp. 19-43). Springer, Cham.

Smith, P. K., & Trope, Y. (2006). You focus on the forest when you’re in charge of the trees: power priming and abstract information processing. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 90(4), 578–596.

Smith, P. K., Wigboldus, D. H. J., & Dijksterhuis, A. (2008). Abstract thinking increases one’s sense of power. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 44(2), 378–385.

Vaisey, S. (2009). Motivation and justification: A dual-process model of culture in action. American journal of sociology114(6), 1675-1715.

Weber, M. (2019). Economy and Society: A New Translation (K. Tribe, trans.; Illustrated Edition). Harvard University Press. (Original work published 1921-1922)

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