Power affects almost all facets of social life, from the food people eat to how long they live. Power concerns are evident in most kinds of relationships, including intimate bonds, parent-child relationships, sibling relations, and relations between group members. This brief entry examines what social psychology has learned with respect to three questions concerning power: What is power? Where does it come from? And how does power influence behavior?
Power is typically defined according to two attributes: (1) the ability to control one’s own outcomes and those of others and (2) the freedom to act. Power is related to but not synonymous with status, authority, and dominance. Status is the outcome of a social evaluation that produces differences in respect and prominence, which contribute to an individual’s power within a group. It is possible to have power without status (e.g., the corrupt politician) and status without relative power (e.g., a religious leader in line at the Department of Motor Vehicles). Authority is power that derives from institutionalized roles or arrangements. Nonetheless, power can exist in the absence of formal roles (e.g., within informal groups). Dominance is behavior that has the acquisition or demonstration of power as its goal. Yet, power can be attained without performing acts of dominance, as when leaders attain power through a cooperative and fair-minded style.
Where Does Power Come From?
Starting as early as age 2, people arrange themselves into social hierarchies. Within a day or so, young adults within groups agree with one another about who is powerful and who is not. Where does an individual’s power come from? In part, individual differences matter. Thus, extraverted people—that is, those who are gregarious, energetic, and likely to express enthusiasm—often attain elevated power within natural social groups. People with superb social skills are more likely to rise in social hierarchies. And even appearance matters. People who are physically attractive, males who are taller and have large muscle mass, and even males with large, square jaws, often attain higher positions in social hierarchies.
Power also derives from facets of the interpersonal context. Authority-based roles within groups endow some individuals with power. This is true in formal hierarchies, such as the workplace, as well as in informal hierarchies, such as family structures in cultures that have historically given older siblings elevated power vis-a-vis younger siblings. Power can derive from knowledge-based expertise. Medical doctors wield power over their patients because of their specialized knowledge. Power can derive from coercion based on the ability to use force and aggression. Power can stem from the ability to provide rewards to others. This helps explain why members of elevated socioeconomic status and majority group status tend to experience greater levels of power than do people of lower socioeconomic status and minority group status. Finally, power derives from the ability to serve as a role model, which is known as reference power.
How Does Power Influence Behavior?
The English language is rich with aphorisms that concern the effects of power: “Power corrupts.” “Money [a source of power] is the root of all evil.” A recent theoretical formulation known as the approach-inhibition theory of power has offered two broad hypotheses concerning the effects of power.
Elevated power is defined by control, freedom, and the lack of social constraint. As a consequence, elevated power tends to make people less concerned with the evaluations of others, more automatic in social thought, and more disinhibited in action. In general, power predisposes individuals to approach-related behavior, moving toward satisfying goals. In contrast, reduced power is associated with increased threat, punishment, and social constraint. As a result, being in low-power positions tends to make people more vigilant and careful in social judgment and more inhibited in social behavior.
A first hypothesis that derives from this approach/ inhibition theory of power is that high-power individuals should be less systematic and careful in how they judge the social world. One result is that high-power individuals should be more likely to thoughtlessly stereotype others, rather than carefully relying on individuating information. Several experimental studies support this hypothesis: Participants given power in experiments are indeed less likely to attend to individuating information and more likely to rely on stereotypes in judging others. Individuals who desire to see their own group dominate other groups, known as the social dominance orientation, are also more likely to stereotype.
Predisposed to stereotype, high-power individuals should tend to judge others’ attitudes, interests, and needs in a less accurate fashion—a hypothesis that has received support from numerous studies. A survey study found that high-power professors were less accurate in their judgments of the attitudes of low-power professors than were low-power professors in judging the attitudes of their high-power colleagues. In a similar vein, power differences may account for the tendency of males to be slightly less accurate than females in judging expressive behavior. Power may even be at work in the striking finding that younger siblings, who experience reduced power vis-a-vis older siblings, outperform their older siblings on theory-of-mind tasks, which assess the ability to construe correctly the intentions and beliefs of others.
Power even seems to prompt less careful thought in individuals who experience a tremendous incentive to demonstrate sophisticated reasoning—Supreme Court justices. A study compared the decisions of U.S. Supreme Court justices when they wrote opinions endorsing the positions of coalitions of different sizes. In some cases, justices wrote on behalf of a minority, typically equated with low power; in other cases, justices wrote on behalf of the victorious majority. Justices writing from positions of power crafted less complex arguments in their opinions than did those writing from low-power positions.
The theory’s second hypothesis is that power should make disinhibited (less constrained) social behavior more likely. Support for this hypothesis is found in numerous studies. Individuals given power experimentally are more likely to touch others and to approach them closely physically, to feel attraction to a random stranger, to turn off an annoying fan in the room where the experiment is being conducted, and to flirt in overly direct ways. In contrast, low-power individuals show inhibition of a wide variety of behaviors.
Individuals with little power often constrict their posture, inhibit their speech and facial expressions, and clam up and withdraw in group interactions.
Perhaps more unsettling is the wealth of evidence showing that elevated power makes antisocial communication more likely. For example, high-power individuals are more likely to violate politeness-related communication norms: They are more likely to talk more, to interrupt more, and to speak out of turn more. They are also more likely to behave rudely at work. They are more likely to tease friends and colleagues in hostile, humiliating fashion. Low-power individuals, in contrast, generally speak politely, making requests indirectly or by asking vague questions, whereas high-power individuals speak forcefully and directly, asking pointed questions and making commands. Power even influences patterns of gaze. A clear indicator of power is the following pattern of gaze: High-power individuals look at listeners when speaking and are looked at when speaking, whereas low-power individuals look away when speaking but look at others when listening.
Power disinhibits more harmful forms of aggression as well, leading to violent behavior against low-power individuals. For example, power asymmetries predict the increased likelihood of sexual harassment. Across cultures and historical periods, the prevalence of rape rises with the cultural acceptance of male dominance and the subordination of females. Furthermore, the incidence of hate crimes against disliked minority groups (that is, non-Whites) was highest when the proportion of demographic majority members (that is, Whites) in a particular neighborhood was largest relative to the proportion of minority members.
Research suggests that we should be careful about who gains power, for power seems to allow individuals to express their true inclinations, both good and bad. If the person is inclined toward malevolent or competitive behavior, power will only make him or her more so. If, on the other hand, the person is more benevolent or good natured, power will amplify the expression of those tendencies. In a study that nicely illustrates this claim, Serena Chen and colleagues identified and selected participants who were either more self-interested and exchange-oriented, or more compassionate and communal-oriented. Each participant was then randomly assigned to a high-power or low-power position in a clever, subtle manner: High-power individuals were seated in a snazzy leather professorial chair during the experiment; low-power individuals were seated in a plain chair typical of psychology experiments. Participants were then asked to volunteer to complete a packet of questionnaires with the help of another participant, who was late. Consistent with the idea that power amplifies the expression of preexisting tendencies, the communal-oriented participants with high power took on the lion’s share of filling out the questionnaires. In contrast, the exchange-oriented participants with high power acted in more self-serving fashion, leaving more of the task for the other participant. The effects of power, then, depend quite dramatically on who is in power.
- Keltner, D., Gruenfeld, D. H., & Anderson, C. (2003). Power, approach, and inhibition. Psychological Review, 110, 265-284.