Need for Power Definition
Need for power is defined as the desire to control or influence others. It is not necessarily associated with actually having power, but instead with the desire to have power. In 1933, Henry Murray defined a long list of what he considered to be basic human needs. These needs were seen as directing behavior, and people were assumed to vary by how important each need was to them as an individual. One of these needs was the need for power. Some of the early empirical work on need for power was done by David McClelland and
David Winter, who refined the definition and developed methods of testing for people’s level of need for power. Need for power (also called power motivation) was seen as one of the three fundamental social motives, along with need for achievement and need for affiliation.
Behaviors Associated with Need for Power
Needs for power can be expressed in behavior in many ways. One of these is the use of physical or psychological aggression to force others to comply with what one wants from them. One can also express the need for power through gaining a reputation as an important person. Other behaviors associated with high power motivation include trying to affect the emotions of others. This could be done by telling jokes, or by a musical or dramatic performance. Finally, need for power can be expressed through providing (often unsolicited) advice or help. The association of helping behavior with other expressions of power motivation is not intuitively obvious, but the diverse set of behaviors listed here have been tied together empirically. They are all forms of exerting power over others. This power is sometimes exercised for one’s own direct benefit, but can also be done with the apparent goal of doing something good for another person.
Some behaviors that have been found to characterize those high in need for power include having a high level of physical fights or verbal arguments with others. Enjoyment of debating might be a characteristic of someone high in need for power. Those who express their power motivation in this way may be very uncomfortable when others see them as powerless or weak. For this reason, they may be seen as hostile or chronically angry. This type of expression of need for power is often seen in negative terms.
Another type of behavior associated with need for power that is more socially acceptable is taking leadership in group situations. Those high in need for power enjoy running an organization, making decisions, or being in charge of a group. They run for elected office. They define what they are doing as motivated by “service” or “duty,” but this labeling of their behavior may be a result of the fact that American society frowns on people openly saying they like to have power.
Gaining a reputation is another expression of power motivation. People may display their need for power by making sure their names are visible on their doors, writing letters that will be published, with their names identified, or doing other things that stand out and lead to other people knowing who they are. One way of building a reputation is to have possessions that are valued by others in the group. These prestige possessions might be particular types of clothing, or music, or any other objects that will impress others. When asked to remember members of a group at a later point, those high in power motivation are more often remembered than are those low in power motivation.
Those high in need for power may also express this by taking a guiding role within their close relationships. They like to give advice to their friends and to propose and plan joint activities. These types of behaviors result in the high-need-for-power individual being more dominant in the relationship. However, when two people who are both high in power motivation do form a relationship, they may alternate in taking the dominant role within the relationship.
Helping behavior resulting from high need for power can be expressed in work roles. One form of this is mentoring, whereby one takes responsibility for guiding a person of lower status within the organization. Mentors motivated by need for power tend to believe that by mentoring others, they will gain a more positive reputation within the organization. By establishing relationships with talented junior members of the organization, they also build a power base that may enable them to gain more power within the organization as those they have mentored rise in the organizational hierarchy.
Knowing levels of need for power provides information that can predict job choice and performance. People who are successful managers within large corporations have been found to be high in need for power. Those working in government positions, where one is providing some type of service, or enforcing regulations, have also been found to be high in power motivation. Being a journalist is another power-related occupation, possibly because of the link with gaining reputation. The set of occupations known as the helping professions are associated with high power motivation. Thus, people who are interested in teaching, being members of the clergy, or being psychologists all tend to be high in need for power. In these types of fields, although the goal is to provide important help to other people, one is also able to exert influence over others and to express desires for power in a way that is socially acceptable, especially for women, who tend to dominate in many of these helping professions.
Although there are many ways of expressing power motivation, those high in the motive may focus on only one type of expression, or they may display many of these. They may express power in one way at one point in their lives, but in another way at a different point. It has been suggested that more aggressive forms of power expression are more common in younger adults, whereas parenting and helping others may be seen more in older adults. Social role expectations affect power motivation expression as well. In general, men are more able to express power through aggression and leadership in large organizations. Women often express power in close relationships or the family.
Need for Power Testing Methods
Need for power is considered to be an unconscious motivation. People are not necessarily aware of their own level of need for power. In fact, openly admitting a desire to have power or influence is not considered socially acceptable, and many would deny having a high need for power. Because of this, researchers cannot simply ask people if having power is important to them. Instead, a variety of projective techniques are used, where people are given some type of vaguely defined task. One of the best known of these is the Thematic Apperception Test. This involves showing people a series of fuzzy pictures and asking them to write a story about each of them. It is assumed that they will draw details in these stories from their own unconscious as they write these stories. Stories are coded for the existence of specific types of themes and given a score for need for power (or other psychological needs). This coding system is very complex and extensive training is needed to do this well. More recently, power motivation has been measured through asking about some of the behaviors mentioned earlier that are associated with the basic need, as determined by the earlier Thematic Apperception Test story coding. Those who display these power-oriented behaviors are assumed to be high in the need for power.
- Frieze, I. H., & Boneva, B. S. (2001). Power motivation and motivation to help others. In A. Y. Lee-Chai & J. A. Bargh (Eds.), The use and abuse of power: Multiple perspectives on the causes of corruption (pp. 75-89). Philadelphia: Psychology Press.
- McClelland, D. C. (1975). Power: The inner experience. New York: Wiley.
- Winter, D. G. (1973). The power motive. New York: Macmillan.