Power Motive

Power Motive Definition

The key defining element of the power motive is one person having an impact on the behavior or emotions of another, or being concerned about prestige and reputation. This basic imagery is often elaborated with anticipations, actions designed to have impact, prestige, pleasure at reaching the goal, and so forth. The measure is implicit, tapping a motivation system based on emotional experience rather than conscious verbal processing, which is affected by language, defenses, and rationalizations. Thus, the content analysis measure of the power motive is usually uncorrelated with direct questionnaire measures—that is, what people believe or consciously report about their need for power.

A power motive should be distinguished from other power-related psychological concepts. For example, power motive is not related to power styles or traits (such as dominance or surgency), beliefs about power (such as authoritarianism or Machiavellianism), the sense of having power (internal control of reinforcements), occupying power positions, or having the skills to get or use power.

History of the Power Motive

Power MotivePower is a concept fundamental to human social life. Hence, the idea that people have a power drive or power motive has a long history in philosophy and psychology. The ancient Greek philosopher Empedocles wrote of “strife” as a master motive opposed to “love.” The 19th-century German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche introduced the term will to power, which psychologist Alfred Adler later adapted as the striving for superiority. In his later work, Sigmund Freud postulated an aggressive or destructive instinct, whereas Henry Murray included a need for dominance in his catalog of human motives.

Power Motive Measurement

In modern psychology, the power motive (also labeled “n Power”) is measured through content analysis of imaginative verbal material—typically, stories that people tell or write in response to vague or ambiguous pictures on the Thematic Apperception Test. The power motive scoring system was developed experimentally, by comparing the stories of people whose power concerns had been aroused with the stories of a control group that had no arousal experience. It was later adapted to score any kind of imaginative verbal or written material, such as fiction, political speeches, and interviews.

Power Motive Characteristics

People express their need for power in a variety of different ways, often depending on other moderating variables such as social class, responsibility, or extra-version. They are drawn to careers involving direct and legitimate interpersonal power, where they can direct other people’s behavior through positive and negative sanctions, within a legitimate institutional structure: for example, business executive, teacher, psychologist or mental health worker, journalist, and the clergy. They also are active members and officers in organizations.

Power-motivated people try to become visible and well-known. They take extreme risks and use prestige (or self-display). They are good at building alliances, especially with lower-status people who aren’t well-known, who have nothing to lose and so become a loyal base of support. In small groups, people high in power motivation tend to define the situation, encourage others to participate, and influence others; however, they are not especially well-liked, and they do not work particularly hard or offer the best ideas. As leaders, they are able to create high morale among subordinates. Political and organizational leaders high in n Power are often viewed by their associates as charismatic and judged by historians as great. In times of social stress, therefore, voters turn to them.

Power Motive Research

Several studies suggest a negative side to the power motive, supporting Lord Acton’s famous comment, “Power tends to corrupt and absolute power corrupts absolutely.” In experimental studies, small-group leader-managers high in power motivation are vulnerable to flattery and ingratiation. Although more cohesive and higher in morale, their groups are less effective in gathering and using information, and pay less attention to moral concerns. In negotiation or bargaining, power-motivated people tend to break agreements to demand better terms. If they lack a sense of responsibility, they engage in a variety of “profligate impulsive” behaviors: verbal and physical aggression, excessive drinking and multiple drug use, gambling, and exploitative sex. Finally, they are vulnerable to boredom, sometimes finding it difficult to take pleasure in their lives.

Most of these actions associated with power motivation are true for women as well as for men. However, power-motivated men may be more likely to be abusive and oppressive to their partners.

Recent research suggests that the need for power is related to certain physiological processes, mechanisms, and hormones. Power-motivated people show greater sympathetic nervous system arousal in response to stress and threat. This leads, in turn, to lower immune system efficiency and more infectious diseases. Power motivation is also related to higher blood pressure and cardiovascular problems.

High levels of power motivation are associated with aggression, both among individuals and among political leaders, governing elites, and societies, especially in times of crisis. International crises in which both sides express high levels of power motivation are likely to escalate to war, whereas crises with lower levels are more likely to be resolved peacefully.

Not much research has been done on the developmental origins of the power motive. Many theorists (for example, Adler and political scientists Harold Lasswell and Alexander George) believe that power strivings originate from an early sense of weakness or lacking power. Some longitudinal research suggests, however, that n Power is fostered by early parental permissiveness rather than restriction, especially permissiveness about the expression of sex and aggression.

Are there good and bad kinds of the need for power? Can power motivation be tamed or tempered by some other psychological variables into prosocial rather than antisocial behavior? Different research studies have suggested that affiliation motivation, maturity, sense of responsibility, self-control, and inhibition can—sometimes but not always—play such a role.


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