On Power

by F.

I’ve never much wanted power over others, whether human or not. It just doesn’t feel good to me. Not only have I never wanted to “manage” people but when I have been forced to do so (for career advancement) I have actively disliked it.

I suppose my dislike is due in part to knowing how much I hate it when someone has power over me, and I assume anyone over whom I have power would feel like I would (which may or may not be the case, of course: some people seem to be like dogs—they always need a master or they feel aimless). In other words, I tend to think I have a high need for “personal power”—the power to do what I want. To not be fucked with.

Turns out this may be more common than wanting power over others. Van Dijke et al. set up an interesting experiment to test whether people wanted to (i) increase power over others or (ii) decrease dependence on others. According to the authors,

It has often been proposed that people are intrinsically motivated to gain or increase power over others. We argue that theoretical underpinnings of such a claim are lacking. Moreover, empirical support for this claim is more convincingly explained by strivings to increase one’s sense of agency (personal power) by decreasing dependence on others, rather than by strivings to increase power over others (social power).

How did they test this? The blog of the British Psychological Society has a nice summary. Van Dijke et al.

devised a financial game in which hundreds of undergrads took turns with a ‘partner’ to make share investment decisions. The students didn’t know this, but they actually played the game with a computer.

When the participants chose how much to invest, as well as using a share’s performance history, their decision was constrained within a recommended upper and lower limit set by their ‘partner’. In turn, the participants were able to set the upper and lower limits for what they thought was their partner. The researchers made it so that some participants had more control over their partner than their partner had over them, some participants had less control, and the remainder had equal control.

When quizzed afterwards, the participants consistently said they would like in the future to have more control over their own investment decisions, but they didn’t wish to have more control over their partner’s decisions. In fact, if they’d previously had more power over their partner’s decisions than their partner had had over theirs, many of the participants actually said they’d like in the future to have less power over their partner. This general pattern remained the same regardless of how much agreement or conflict there appeared to have been between their own and their partner’s investment decisions.

Cite: Van Dijke, M. & Poppe, M. (2006). Striving for personal power as a basis for social power dynamics. European Journal of Social Psychology, 36, 537-556.