Power makes the world go round

“O, it is excellent to have a giant's strength, but it is tyrannous to use it like a giant.” ― William Shakespeare, Measure for Measure

“O, it is excellent to have a giant's strength, but it is tyrannous to use it like a giant.” ― William Shakespeare, Measure for Measure

“O, it is excellent to have a giant’s strength, but it is tyrannous to use it like a giant.”

― William Shakespeare, Measure for Measure

By the powers that be. For Thine is the kingdom, the power, and the glory. To the victor go the spoils. Power to the people. Might makes right. Power corrupts. The exercise of social power, whether through reward or coercion, is intrinsic to human interaction in matters great and small: parents and teachers wield power over children, employers over employees, governors over the governed, coaches over players, officers over soldiers, victors over the vanquished. Indeed, power differentials are built into every society – the strong over the weak; the rich over the poor; and those with more friends and allies over those with few.

While in early times, power was gained through physical strength that enabled an individual to subdue others, complex societies gradually developed, as 17th century philosopher Thomas Hobbes observed, in the effort to limit the exploitative abilities of those in power. Nonetheless, powerful leaders have often done their best to resist such constraints, sometimes mistaking their own welfare for the welfare of the populace. The royal edict, L’état, c’est moi (“The state, it is I”), attributed to Louis XIV, reflects this attitude, as does a similar pronouncement in Al Capp’s Li’l Abner comic strip of years ago: The greedy capitalist tycoon General Bullmoose regularly proclaimed that “What’s good for General Bullmoose is good for the USA.” And similar beliefs find expression in the exhortations of modern-day tyrannical leaders.

Of course, power, like fire or nuclear energy, is neither good nor bad in and of itself. While the Many often suffer from the greed of the Mighty, organized society would break down were there no social power. Classrooms would descend into chaos; thieves and gangsters would act with impunity; and companies would be unshackled in their pursuit of profits.

Power and influence

Social scientists and philosophers alike have a long-standing interest in the concept of power, some even advocating that its study should be at the very heart of the social sciences. No less a philosopher than Bertrand Russell declared, “I should be concerned to prove that the fundamental concept in social sciences is Power, in the same sense in which Energy is the fundamental concept in physics.”

But what is “power”? In essence, it refers to the ability of the power-holder to bend others to his or her bidding. It takes several forms which are not mutually exclusive and can reside in the same individual:

Reward power – the ability to confer desired rewards – money, affection, approval – upon those who do one’s bidding. Labourers will work to build a railroad through a jungle even at the risk of contracting yellow fever if they are in desperate need of money and have no better means to earn it. And modern workers in the “tech” industry will labour excessively long hours in their air-conditioned offices in return for status and substantial recompense.

Coercive power – the ability to punish others for noncompliance with one’s wishes. Fear of punishment is a powerful motivator and may take many forms, from withdrawal of affection to banishment, infliction of pain, or even execution. Unlike reward power, the use of coercive power succeeds best when it only threatens and does not need to be used.

Legitimate power – the endowing of a small number of authorities (governors, teachers, police officers) with the power needed to carry out their duties. Citizens, having internalized their respect for authorities, generally comply with their demands, aware that legitimate power is backed up by the availability of coercive power.

Social influence

Social power and social influence, although related, are two independent concepts. Social power naturally leads to influence, but while power is backed up by the promise of reward or the threat of coercion, social influence in its own right relies upon persuasion to bring about behavioural compliance. Social influence takes several forms:

Expert influence – we follow the directives of those who have important skills and knowledge because we trust that their knowledge will help us in the service of our needs and goals. Thus, we comply with a physician’s instructions because we believe that he or she knows more than we do about what is good for our health.

Informational influence – the ability of newspaper editors, governmental press secretaries, university professors and others to provide information that in turn influences our behaviour.

Referent influence – this derives from respect and admiration for a leader. For example, members of a political party who hold their party leader in high esteem are likely to do as the leader asks, both because they want to please the leader and on the assumption that the leader knows best.

Power changes many people, but does it corrupt?

In 1887, Lord Acton described the tendency for power to corrupt those who wield it, adding that absolute power corrupts absolutely. He wrote,

Great men are almost always bad men, even when they exercise influence and not authority: still more when you [add] the tendency or the certainty of corruption by authority.

Was Lord Acton correct? Does power corrupt? Or is it the case that those who seek power are already corrupt or are more corruptible than the rest of us?

Corruption aside, there is ample evidence that a rise to power often creates the impression among subordinates that the power-holder’s character has changed, and usually not for the better. However, it should not be surprising that acquiring power often brings changes to social relationships. Consider the mundane example of moving into a management position in an organization. This move will require the new manager to place more focus on the goals of the organization than on the personal needs of the employees being supervised. This shift of focus often leads to showing less interest and spending less time on trying to see things from a subordinate’s perspective. As a consequence, people adapting themselves to a new position of power often become less adept at interpreting the verbal and facial cues of subordinates and misjudge their reactions to their decisions.

There is also empirical evidence that many who rise to positions of power tend to come to view subordinates more in terms of how they can contribute to the power-holder’s goals than as individuals with their own qualities and opinions and insights. As a result, the perception may develop among subordinates, whether fair or not, that the power-holder has lost interest in former colleagues, and this too makes harmonious interpersonal relationships more difficult to maintain. In addition, the need to be firm in dealing with incompetent or uncooperative employees is easier to manage by keeping a degree of psychological and emotional detachment from former co-workers. Gradually the power-holder may become more and more isolated, ultimately leading to the “loneliness of command.”

There is another important factor that changes social relationships when someone gains more power: Many subordinates become increasingly deferential, while sycophants and flatterers seek the opportunity to ingratiate themselves. Such professed adoration critically distorts the feedback that the powerful receive, thereby contributing to unrealistic self-assessments of their abilities, their success, and the impression they make on subordinates.

Power and disinhibition

The pursuit of wants and needs is tempered by inhibitions. They almost always prevent us from urinating in the streets, despite one’s urgency, and they thankfully, most of the time, stifle unkind words or antisocial actions before they can gain expression. Disinhibition, on the other hand, involves the peeling away of those inhibitions resulting in impulsivity, disregard for social norms and diminished assessment of risks. As most of us have learned first-hand, alcohol is a great disinhibitor that gives free reign to words and actions that never would have been unleashed while we were sober.

Power also can be a potent disinhibitor. Some research even points to its ability to produce a kind of adrenaline rush that furthers disinhibition, and the effect sometimes extends to sexual matters as well, making power, in the words of Henry Kissinger, “the ultimate aphrodisiac.” Such a judgement is supported by a series of experiments that showed that providing managers with power over opposite-sex subordinates triggered sexual themes, including the expectation that the subordinates would experience reciprocal sexual interest. This may in part explain why power is sometimes accompanied by sexual harassment.

And so, the psychological research literature is filled with evidence of negative accompaniments of power. As it increases and inhibitions decrease, power-holders tend to grow in confidence and take greater risks, develop a compassion deficit, and become more headstrong with regard to the importance of their personal goals. On the other hand, other research has found that power can also be associated with positive characteristics such as greater generosity and empathy and concern for the common good. Whether power leads to positive or negative changes in the power-holder appears to depend on the person. This idea is not new; it has been noted across the centuries. Plato observed that “The measure of a man is what he does with power,” and Abraham Lincoln advised that “Nearly all men can stand adversity, but if you want to test a man’s character, give him power.“ Similarly, modern day scientist David Brin points to pre-existing characteristics that determine whether power changes a person in a positive or negative direction:

It is said that power corrupts, but actually it’s more true that power attracts the corruptible. The sane are usually attracted by other things than power.

Modern autocratic and narcissistic leaders – Putin, Trump, Bolsonaro, Duterte, to name a few – were no doubt obsessed with the desire for power long before they became all-powerful. But once in power, the desire to maintain that power becomes a new obsession. As Nobel Peace Prize winner, Aung San Suu Kyi, who has herself fallen from grace after rising to power, warns:

It is not power that corrupts but fear. Fear of losing power corrupts those who wield it and fear of the scourge of power corrupts those who are subject to it.

The norms of power

Why do society’s “protectors,” authorized to use force to protect the citizenry, sometimes respond with unnecessary and even overwhelming aggression? There are several influences to consider. An institution legally permitted to use violence is naturally attractive to people who seek and enjoy aggression and power. Many modern police and military forces make efforts to screen out such people, but this has proven extremely difficult to accomplish.

Further, the work environment of police officers and peace-time soldiers (think of peacekeepers, for example) often involves encounters with unpleasant individuals who may swear, spit, or use a weapon when challenged. This contributes to the development of a defensive, sometimes near-paranoid, attitude toward certain groups. In addition, there is a tendency to stereotype and derogate people of particular backgrounds, putting them at risk of being targets of legitimized aggression. In addition, the availability of weapons to the police and military creates the temptation to use them as a threat to force compliance, but once a weapon is presented, further escalation often results.

Another important factor involves competing normative systems. The recruit comes to the force presumably imbued with “civilian” norms and may at the outset be alarmed by needlessly aggressive actions of colleagues. However, belonging to any group is difficult if one does not accommodate to its norms. Police and military norms require presenting a commanding presence in dealing with others, and a “tough guy” image is usually well-regarded. Gradually, the recruit chooses the norms of the group over the civilian norms, including what is often an “us versus them” perspective.

Powers great and small: The role of language

We are all aware of how speech can intimidate. A gently spoken “please pay attention” elicits quite different emotional and behavioural reactions than the same words spoken in a loud and firm: “PAY ATTENTION!” (It is interesting to note that the use of all-capitals is a substitute for a loud voice in modern text communications).

Children growing up in the traditional family of yesteryear knew full well the power signalled by dad’s low voice. In patriarchal societies – that is, most societies – the lower male voice has long been associated with power, authority, gravitas, control. This has been yet another obstacle for women seeking equal treatment and opportunity in society. In a poll carried out in the United States in 2010, approximately half of the male and female respondents agreed that a male voice sounds more forceful, while only two percent of men and three percent of women viewed a female voice as more forceful. (The rest indicated no difference).

How can women even the playing field in this regard? One response is to learn to speak with a pitch that does not correspond directly to the size and shape of the larynx. Take the case of former UK prime minister Margaret Thatcher. Aware that her higher pitched female voice did not correspond to the tough image that she wanted to project, she took voice lessons and learned to speak with a lower, “more powerful” pitch. And not that many years ago, female radio announcers were rarely given the authoritative positions of newsreaders because their voices were not considered authoritative enough. Then along came Barbara Walters who, with her low, gravelly voice, was widely accepted as speaking authoritatively, spurring many women in the news industry to make deliberate efforts to lower their register. There has been a significant drop in pitch amongst female newsreaders, compared with the pitch of the relatively few female newsreaders a generation ago, and this has been observed not only in the English-speaking world but in Japan as well.

It is not just pitch that signals power in verbal interactions. Within a given culture, there are also particular conversation styles that are associated with social power, while other styles signal powerlessness. Studies show that English speakers in positions of power are more likely to interrupt their interlocutor than be interrupted, and when people speak to people higher in power, they tend to use hedge phrases that signal uncertainty (such as “sort of,” “I think”); tag questions (short phrases at the end of the sentence that seem to turn a statement into a question, such as “it looks like it’s going to rain, don’t you think?”); and rising intonation at the end of an ordinary statement that makes it sound like a question. Some studies have found that women tend towards a powerless speech style when speaking to men, which is most likely a reflection of the fact that even in contemporary society, women are often relegated to positions of lower power.

Note that our choice of speech register is almost always unconscious and automatic. This can lead to unintended consequences. A woman who, because of her history of socialization, unconsciously uses a low-power speech register when interacting with a man, may leave the interaction feeling that he has been condescending, while he may be left with the impression that she lacks confidence and possibly competence as well. Each is likely completely unaware of the role that their speech registers played in generating their interpretations.

However, cultural beliefs are changing. In consequence, social norms relating to relative power are leading to a future is which gender-based differences unrelated to physiology are likely to diminish and even disappear.

Yet, the effects of such verbal nuances extend far beyond male-female interactions. Our (usually unconscious) choice of speech register both reflects our perceived power relative to the listener and signals our degree of respect or lack of it. We are all familiar with the manner in which we speak to young children, using a register involving a high pitch and exaggerated intonations. Linguists refer to this as (adult) baby-talk – a feature of all languages. However, most people are not aware of their use of secondary baby-talk, linguists’ label for the employment of the baby-talk register when speaking to some adults. Most of us would resent being spoken to in this register because it smacks of belittlement and condescension, but it is all too commonly used in interactions with people with mental or debilitating physical handicaps, and by well-meaning staff in institutions for the elderly. Its use promotes helplessness and dependency in the listener, reinforcing feelings of powerlessness and incompetence. Research has revealed that elderly people move, talk and think more slowly in interacting with people who speak to them in secondary baby-talk, compared to when talking with people who address them as adults.

Power and social programming

We have all been socially conditioned in childhood to submit to power. Every society trains its young to recognize and respect important social norms, the most serious of which are written into law. The effects of social conditioning are enduring and, for the most part, that is a good thing, for otherwise many social interactions would be unpleasant or even chaotic. Drivers stop at stop signs even when apparently alone at the intersection. We cover our mouths when coughing and avoid slurping our coffee when others are present. However, we view these actions as matters of choice, as contributions to the common good, and we generally pride ourselves on our independence; we are not sheep who mindlessly follow orders. Yet, research has shown just how easy it is, given the right circumstances, to produce obedience even when it results in harm to others. Social conditioning to obey, while dormant, never goes away completely.

A true story and a parable of sorts: A cub pack from an upscale neighbourhood in Toronto is being bussed to old Fort Henry in Kingston, Ontario, where it will be the first group of children permitted to spend the night in the fortress. Accompanying the children are six fathers, already frustrated by their seeming inability to dampen the rambunctiousness of the group, each man’s authority seemingly effective only with his own child. A disastrous lunch stop is made at a fast-food restaurant but ends prematurely when the manager asks them to leave because of undisciplined and noisy behaviour. Back on the bus, the adults are again befuddled as they try to quell the near pandemonium of the excited children. A weekend from hell seems to lie in wait for the six parents.

The bus arrives at the fort and the children quickly disembark with their noisy enthusiasm in full throttle. They are greeted by three “soldiers,” a Captain, Sergeant and Private dressed in the uniforms of the mid-1830s (all university students hired for the summer). Almost immediately, the Captain commands the children to be silent and to form a line. His bark is impressive, and to the surprise of the six adults, uncannily effective, for the clamour instantly ceases as the children obediently fall into line along the side of the bus. The six adults, fascinated by this verbal show of force, are surprised when the Captain then loudly repeats his order: “I said, form a line.” But now, he is staring directly at them. They men exchange puzzled looks, but under the piercing glares of both Captain and Sergeant, they shuffle into line. Each thinks that he is simply cooperating in make-believe, but as they soon learn, their unconscious minds see things somewhat differently.

The children are then attired in ragtag uniforms and spend most of the afternoon being ordered about while marching up and down the parade square. That night, children and adults alike participate in a regimental dinner held in the manner of 1837: the Captain and Sergeant and two of the children (both “Privates”) sit at the head table, while the six fathers are seated around a table at the back of the room. The Captain commands that, in keeping with 1837 military practice, no one is allowed to speak during the meal without first obtaining permission.

At one point, one of the adults quietly asks another, seated closer to the coffee wagon, to pass him a cup of coffee. This immediately draws the ire of the Captain who forcefully asks his Private to tell him who has spoken without permission. The private points to the scofflaw – I’ll call him Bill (who in everyday life is a high-powered Bay Street lawyer). The Captain then loudly and forcefully admonishes Bill, no doubt to the quiet amusement of most of the children.

At the end of the meal, the Captain indicates that all our now free to speak amongst themselves, and one of the adults asks Bill if he still wants a coffee. He responds, sotto voce, in the affirmative, but quietly adds that he is not going to risk being yelled at by getting up to get it himself!

The three “soldiers” leave the fort after the meal, abandoning the six adults to the rambunctious chaos of the children. Once again, pandemonium breaks out and the children will not settle down. One frustrated adult is pushed to tyranny and threatens that any child who refuses to get into bed and be quiet will be taken to spend the night alone in a room known to be haunted! The children laugh, until one child is dragged away to another room for a short while. Ugly abuse of power, but it works.

Before the “soldiers” return to restore order the next morning, one of the fathers – yours truly – catches sight of Bill as he slouches across the parade square towards the latrine and calls out a greeting. Bill, unaware of who has called to him, quickly snaps to attention with a “Yes sir!” He looks around, relaxes and says sheepishly, “I thought it was the Captain.” He then admits that he had feared another verbal dressing down.

Six adults unable to control a pack of twenty-some children. Six adults fully aware that the “soldiers” were only play-acting. But those play-actors with their uniforms, and the Captain’s strong and confident voice, were enough to engender a degree of anxiety and compliance incompatible with simple role-playing.

Parables presumably offer lessons, and so what is the lesson here? Just that, as discussed above, we have all been trained in childhood to submit to power, and we have all experienced anxiety when challenged by authority. As autonomous adults, we are able to suppress such tendencies, but the behavioural and emotional sub-routines programmed in childhood remain ready for active service when the particular circumstances that favour them arise.

Beware the power of the dark side

Some, especially those with narcissistic tendencies, strive for power in order boost to their egos while expanding the opportunity for personal gain. The danger this poses to the common good has long been obvious to students of power. Plato: Only those who do not seek power are qualified to hold it. And Tolstoy: In order to obtain and hold power, a man must love it.

Fortunately, there are many who seek power not just to further themselves but to promote the welfare of others – for example, through social reform or by seeking justice for all. The challenge for responsible citizens in democratic nations is to choose wisely the people to whom they grant power, whether as police officers, soldiers, administrators, or politicians. There is no better example of the perils inherent in making bad choices than the drama writ large being played out in our neighbour to the south.♦