Power is in the eye of the beholder!

Friday, 1 July 2011 00:01 -     - {{hitsCtrl.values.hits}}

In all communities, power is the primary controlling and organising force. It allows the few to control the lives of many by providing or preventing access to valued resources or through punishments, whilst freeing themselves, often, to behave as they wish.

There is recent scientific evidence to suggest that behaving as they wish and breaking social rules, signals greater power, adding more weight to the old saying, “power tends to corrupt and absolute power corrupts absolutely”.

It has long been known that high-power people enjoy fewer social controls and live in more resource-rich environments, whilst low-power people experience more social controls, threats and punishments. But what happens to the position of power when corruption comes into play? Does society simply remove power from them or afford greater power to them?

The powerful are often typecast as exhibiting certain behaviours such as smiling less, staring more, gesturing and touching others more in the course of conversation, interrupting more and speaking in a louder voice, for example. In their actions, they are seen to be more goal-oriented and proceed without much fear of negative consequences. They appear more likely to take risks, be freer with the expression of emotion, act according to impulse and generally disregard the pressures of the situation.

Clearly, power does seem to communicate a certain lack of behavioural self-control, making the powerful more likely to behave in socially improper ways. Scientists on comparing the behaviour of the powerful with their less powerful counterparts, found that the former are more likely to; invade personal space of others, fail to see others’ point of view, ignore others’ suffering, stereotype and patronise others, cheat, take credit for others’ efforts, use others for their own benefit and exhibit more aggression. But what is most surprising is the seeming acceptance of these social lapses by the rest.

A team of scientists from the Netherlands recently investigated the effects of the display of some of these behaviours on others. Their findings have shed new light to the idea of power and the violation of social norms by the powerful. They found overwhelming evidence of people who break social rules and norms being perceived as more powerful by the onlooker. 

This suggests that, within the social/communal setting, such as the organisational hierarchy, for example, individuals can gain power in the eyes of others by going against the norm. This perceived power then can soon be translated into actual power as it is reinforced by others and perpetuated over time. 

Clearly power does liberate the powerful, and as it does so, it seems to lead others to perceive them as even more powerful. Unfortunately, in some, this can lead to the violation of more and more social norms, in a seemingly vicious cycle, eventually leading to a multitude of undesirable and damaging acts such as fraud, sexual harassment and violence. This is a trend not too far from the escalation of antisocial behaviour, and hence status, amongst street gangs and hooligans.

The scientists who led the research are clear to point out that simply breaking social rules does not guarantee a path to power, but it does seem to convey a perception of power to others. Clearly how long a person gets away with breaking the social rules depends on many factors, including his or her various competences and general worthiness to that power.

There is evidence, that when the powerful break rules when acting in the interest of the group, it is seen as acceptable, and results in a further elevation of their social standing. But when the powerful behave in ways that hurt the group, it is not accepted. And as the authors point out, people are very quick to undermine a person’s power position (through gossip, for example) when they feel it is undeserved. 

Clearly the exploration into power has been going on for centuries and will probably continue for centuries to come. But what is clear is that, power is definitely a socially dynamic process, one that is reinforced and perpetuated or quickly disarmed, depending on the perceptions, needs and wants of the majority. 

(Dr. C. Dissanayake is a chartered occupational psychologist, working in Europe and Asia, on optimising human performance at work. Daily FT readers are invited to send in work and performance related questions to address in future columns to chintha@oxford-psychometrics.com.)


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