Social Power

Social Power Definition

Social power is the potential for social influence. The available tools one has to exert influence over another can lead to a change in that person. Social power and social influence are separate and distinct concepts. Although social power is potential (which may or may not be used), social influence is an effect, an actual change (or deliberate maintenance) in the beliefs, attitudes, behavior, emotions, and so on, of someone because of the actions or presence of another. The person or group that is the source of influence is commonly known as the influencing agent, whereas the object of the attempted or successful influence attempt is commonly known as the target (of the influence). Thus, influencing agents have social power, which are the means they may use to influence targets.

Social Power Background and History

Social PowerThe ability of one person (or group) to get others to do his or her will, also known as social power, has long been of interest to social psychologists. Perhaps this is because so much of human interaction involves the change or the attempt to change the beliefs, attitudes, or behaviors of another. Because of the long-standing interest in the topic, several different investigations have used different definitions of social power and different ways of measuring power. However, an extensive survey has found that the approach most commonly used originally identified five distinct potential tactics one could use in an influence attempt. This approach was updated some years ago and now includes six distinct tactics that can be subdivided into 11 varieties. Of course, in an influence attempt multiple types of influence are often used at the same time. The types of social power are as follows:

  • Informational. This type is the ability to rationally persuade someone.
  • Expert. This social power is similar to informational power except that arguments are not necessary because the target trusts the influencing agent.
  • Referent. The referent type is based on the target’s identifying and liking the influencing agent and, because of this, wanting to comply with his or her requests.
  • Coercive power. This type involves threat of punishment. These can be things such as monetary fines (impersonal) or simply personal disapproval (personal).
  • Reward power. This social power type stems from the ability of the influencing agent to grant some kind of reward, either impersonal or personal.
  • Legitimate power. Based on what general society typically expects of us, this includes (a) the formal legitimate (or position) norm, which is the right to ask for something based simply on position or job title; (b) the reciprocity norm, whereby if someone does something for you, you owe him or her the favor in return; (c) the equity norm, the idea that one is expected to help others receive what they deserve, for example, if you work hard, you should get rewarded; and (d) social responsibility (or dependence), whereby people are obligated to help those who depend on them.

The type of social power used in an influence attempt often depends on a person’s motivations. Sometimes people are consciously aware of their motivations, and sometimes they are not. Clever influencing agents often choose the kind of influence they use based on considerations of potential effectiveness and other factors. These factors can be quite varied. For example, some people are motivated by the desire to appear powerful. To feel powerful, an influencing agent may choose a type of influence strategy that makes him or her feel as though he or she is in control of the target of influence. If so, the influencing agent may choose to use coercion or reward in the influence attempt. Similarly, a desire to enhance one’s sense of power in the eyes of others, status, security, role requirements, the desire to harm a target of influence, and self-esteem considerations might lead one to choose the more controlling, stronger, or harsher types of influence tactics (such as coercion). Others may wish to maintain a friendship or appear humble. In that case, they would rely more on information.

When these stronger or harsher types of power are used effectively, they enhance the influencing agent’s view of himself or herself because the influencing agent can attribute subsequent change in the target to himself or herself. When this occurs, the powerholder then tends to think less of the target of influence. It has been argued that simply through the continual exercise of successful influence, the powerholder’s view of others and himself or herself changes in a harmful way. The powerholder begins to view himself or herself as superior to the person that over which he or she is exercising power, and because of this feeling of superiority, may treat the target of influence in a demeaning manner. This effect would be consistent with the common belief that power is a corrupting influence.

Social Power Evidence

Hundreds of studies published in respected scientific journals involving social power as described earlier have been conducted in several diverse fields, including health and medicine, family relations, gender relations, education, marketing and consumer psychology, social and organizational psychology, and examinations of confrontation between political figures. Studies have been conducted in the context simulations and questionnaires, strictly controlled laboratory settings using traditional experimental methods, real-world settings such as hospitals and other large organizations, and through historical case study analysis.

Importance of Social Power

Much of what humans do as individuals and society involves influencing others. People want and need things from others, things such as affection, money, opportunity, work, and justice. How they get those things often depends on their abilities to influence others to grant their desires. In addition, people are also the constant targets of the influence attempts of others. Thus, it is important to understand what causes people to comply with others’ wishes, and how the exercise of power affects both targets and influencing agents. The study of social power provides that knowledge.


  1. Gold, G. J., & Raven, B. H. (1992). Interpersonal influence strategies in the Churchill-Roosevelt bases for destroyers exchange. Journal of Social Behavior and Personality, 7, 245-272.
  2. Kipnis, D. (1972). Does power corrupt? Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 24, 33-41.
  3. Raven, B. H. (2001). Power/interaction and interpersonal influence: Experimental investigations and case studies. In A. Y. Lee-Chai & J. A. Bargh (Eds.), The use and abuse of power (pp. 217-240). Ann Arbor, MI: Sheridan Books.