Theories of Power: Perceived Strategies for Gaining and Maintaining Power

Here are some highlights of a recent study noted in the New York Times today:

* What does it take to gain and maintain power? Aristotle believed that power was afforded to individuals that acted in virtuous ways that promote the greater good. Machiavelli, nearly 2,000 years later, argued to great effect that power could be taken through the use of manipulation, coercion, and strategic violence. With these historical perspectives as a conceptual foundation, we validate a 2-factor measure of theories of power (TOPS; Study 1), which captures lay theories of how power is gained and maintained among family members, at work, and in international politics (Study 2). We differentiate TOPS from other established measures of power, highlighting that these beliefs about power are conceptually distinct
from widely used measures of dominance and prestige, and uniquely predict social outcomes. Turning to social class, we find that participants who make upward social comparisons perceive themselves to be of lower class and endorse less collaborative and more coercive theories of power, relative to those who make downward comparisons and report themselves to be higher in the class hierarchy (Studies 3a and 3b). Building upon these findings, we identify theory of power endorsement as a correlate of interpersonal trust, and a mediator of how lower class individuals, who endorse less collaborative views of power, report less trust of institutions and individuals (Study 4). Theories of power provide a novel construct for understanding power dynamics at multiple levels of analysis.

* Influencing others is the crux of power. People rise to power to the extent that they influence others’ thoughts, emotions, actions, and well-being. The powerful—in interpersonal, organizational, and political arenas—regularly make decisions that impact the lives of others. How, then, do people gain and maintain power through influence?

As social theorists have grappled with the nature of power over the millennia, two contrasting theories have emerged. A first finds its origins in Aristotle, who defined the qualities of an ideal political leader in 350 B.C., emphasizing virtues such as courage, justice, and temperance. A second found its chief voice some 2,000 years later in Machiavelli, who countered in his influential book, The Prince, that power is found in force, fraud, manipulation, and strategic violence. Recent research and theorizing provide support for both perspectives. Acts of social coordination and collaboration in pursuit of the greater good do lead to increased social influence via freely conferred deference. However, dominance, force, threat, and manipulation can also lead to rises in power within groups of different kinds.

We define power as the capacity to influence other individuals’ states…

While power is commonly defined as influence rooted in the control over valuable resources, there is considerable evidence to suggest that influence can spring from many sources. Studies have highlighted identity-based sources of power, including wealth, knowledge, title, education, physical attributes, and social skills, to name a few. For example, power is distinct
from prestige—the esteem an individual receives from others, which is sometimes based on one’s occupation. However, prestige affords the opportunity to influence others by sharing thoughts, opinions, and advice. In a similar vein, power is differentiated from social class, the mixture of prestige of work, family wealth, and education, which combines into the objective and subjective sense of one’s status in society. Yet, the wealthy are often afforded social influence, either freely by others wishing to copy their path to success or more forcefully, via resource control. In short, gaining power—that is, social influence— can derive from a variety of facets of social identity.

… power is distinct from dominance, a set of interpersonal strategies by which the individual exerts coercive control over others. However, physically formidable men are often afforded power in cooperative groups. Divergent strategies to achieving power lie at the heart of writings by Aristotle and Machiavelli, who famously wrote of their theories about how power is gained and maintained.

…people’s theories about academic achievement—as essentialist or incremental—predict responses to failure and students’ grades in challenging courses (Dweck, 2006). Similarly, lay beliefs about emotions as changeable (or not) predict the use of different emotion regulation strategies…

Collaborative theory of power. Aristotle reasoned that, above all, virtuous actions are the surest pathway to power (Aristotle, 350 B.C./1962). The virtuous leader was likely to gain and maintain social influence through acts of temperance, courage, humility, and magnanimity. Once occupying a position of power, he believed that a person of virtue would bear in mind the interests of all, rather than resorting to the gratification of narrow self interest or catering to a privileged minority. This early reasoning has found support in social scientific studies, guided by the central claim that groups, acting in their own collective self-interest, grant power to individuals who act in ways that advance collective interests. In a review of who rises to power in schools, organizations, and military units, it proved to be the individual with a more collaborative mixture of traits; the individual who is enthusiastic toward others, focused on goals and tasks, and open to new ideas. That groups give power to individuals who advance the greater good through collaborative action is a social regularity in hunter gatherer societies.

In a review of studies of 48 such societies living in the conditions of our social evolution, Christopher Boehm (1993, p. 233) describes the individual who rises in power as follows: “generous, brave in combat, wise in making subsistence or military decisions, apt at resolving intragroup conflicts, a good speaker, fair, impartial, reliable, tactful, and morally upright,” and “strong and assertive” but “humble.”

We will call this the collaborative theory of power and note its resemblance to two recent theses about the acquisition of power. The first is prestige-based power. Rooted in evolutionary theorizing about social groups, Henrich and Gil-White (2001) proposed that power is based in social information transmission, such that prestige is freely given to individuals that possess superior knowledge or skill. Prestige-based power, like collaborative power, is freely conferred by subordinates. The original description of prestige-based power, as rooted in competence, does not emphasize social coordination, nor a concern for the welfare of subordinates and the greater good, which is central to the collaborative
theory of power. That said, the conceptualization of prestige-based power has evolved in recent years to include virtue as a component of this route to attaining social influence (e.g., Cheng & Tracy, 2014) and recent research suggests that virtue alone can provide a third pathway to social influence in social groups (Bai, Ho, & Yan, 2020).

We also note the similarity between a collaborative theory of power and the “guilt-prone leader.” The latter is based on the assumption that individuals with a strong sense of responsibility to others gain power These individuals do not grab power, but rather, are given power by others; they put the needs of others above their own and receive others’ respect in return… In this vein, a study of 161 employees in a large organization found that people rise in status to the extent that they are perceived as generous to others.

Thus, while contemporary conceptualizations of prestige-based power and guilt-prone leadership share virtuous characteristics with a collaborative theory of power, the former describe routes to achieving power. The collaborative theory of power, in contrast, refers to beliefs about power that favor social coordination and concern for the well-being of others, rather than one’s own pursuit, desire, or experience of power through these means.

Coercive theory of power. Machiavelli (1532/1961) was deeply hostile to Aristotle’s prescriptions for gaining power To Machiavelli, power was a resource to be grabbed—taken at will and ultimately without concern for others. He advised
aspiring rulers to feign convictions, often of a religious kind, that would appeal to the masses and to cripple rivals with strategic violence. His views are summarized in one well-known Machiavellianism; that it is better to be feared than loved. Although he conceded that it might be useful to appear virtuous, he believed that to be genuinely kind would be unwise. And to maintain power, he advocated the use of force, fraud, manipulation, and strategic violence (Machiavelli, 1532/1961). Gaining power, this theory holds, requires coercion.

This coercive theory of power overlaps in important ways with the dominance-based route to power put forward by Cheng, Tracy, Foulsham, Kingstone, and Henrich (2013) and others (Buss & Duntley, 2006). This route to power is based in evoking fear and the use or threat of force. Through intimidation and coercion, individuals gain influence over others. Building on the dominancebase route to power, the coercive theory of power emphasizes the amoral nature of Machiavelli’s strategy. Central to this theory of power is the utmost importance of gaining and maintaining the sole position of power in a group and the use of whatever tactics are necessary to do so.

In sum, while the dominance-based route to power overlaps conceptually with the coercive theory of power, the former describes actions that can be taken to achieve power. The coercive theory of power, in contrast, refers to beliefs about how power is gained and maintained. In short, while much empirical attention has been paid to studying power as a psychological state and to delineating the various actions that can cultivate power, theories of power are novel in that they pertain to cognitions about power that people develop and adhere to, perhaps at times independent of actions taken to gain power.

Moral foundations. Although Aristotle (350 B.C./1962) championed the idea that gaining and maintaining power is rooted in the pursuit of social good through moral action, Machiavelli (1532/1961) described power and morality as largely independent. Machiavelli advocated a pragmatic approach to moral behavior; that appearing virtuous can be valuable, but that deception, manipulation, and strategic violence should be deployed when necessary, as the context demands. Consistent with these early perspectives on power, the moral underpinnings of collaborative and coercive theories are likely to diverge significantly. Specifically, we expect that endorsing a collaborative theory of power will be positively associated with each of the five moral foundations: reducing harm, pursing fairness, in-group loyalty, respect for authority, and purity (Haidt & Graham, 2007). In light of Machiavelli’s pragmatic approach to morality, we did not expect coercive theories of power to covary with moral foundations, with the exception of authority, which concerns the maintenance of strict hierarchies.

Moral sentiments. Certain emotions such as compassion, awe, and gratitude are moral as they promote prosocial actions
including altruism, cooperation, the sharing of resources, and social coordination. These actions are critical components of collaborative power and, consistent with our predictions about moral foundation endorsement, we expect that the experience of moral emotions will be associated with collaborative, but not coercive theories of power. Relatedly, Melwani, Mueller, and Overbeck (2012) found that individuals who expressed compassion and contempt were both ascribed leadership
qualities. To the extent that compassionate individuals are enacting collaborative theories of power and contemptuous individuals are enacting coercive theories of power, the dispositional experience and expression of these sentiments may be part of dual routes to achieving social influence. Accordingly, we predicted that positive emotions would correlate positively with collaborative beliefs and negatively with coercive beliefs about power.

Personality. The Dark Triad of personality traits— comprised of Machiavellianism, psychopathy, and narcissism—is often attributed to a compromised or dysfunctional sense of morality.. Specifically, Machiavellianism is characterized by manipulation and cynicism, psychopathy by callousness and aggression, and narcissism by vanity and grandiosity… Generally speaking, individuals with these traits tend to privilege their own interests strongly over others and act accordingly… These traits are also reflected in their moral cognitions and sentiments. For example, psychopathic personality traits are characterized by a diminished capacity to experience empathy (Hare, 2006), and are associated with decreased endorsement of all moral foundations, with the exception of authority (Glenn et al., 2009). Psychopathic individuals also cheat, lie, and
engage in instrumental aggression more than individuals without these traits… In management positions, individuals with Dark Triad traits tend to bully subordinates, create social divisions, and misbehave in the workplace. These dominance-based actions may be complimented by a coercive theory of power. Indeed, psychopathic personality traits are associated with a competitive worldview, including the overperception of conflict in negotiation scenarios and the biased attribution of negative personality traits to others. Consistent with these cognitions, we expect that psychopathy, and the related traits of Machiavellianism and narcissism (Paulhus & Williams, 2002), will be positively associated with coercive and negatively associated with collaborative theory of power endorsement.

* Across measures, it is clear that individuals of lower social class backgrounds enjoy less power in the world… A recent study Belmi and Laurin (2016) suggests that theories of power may in part be at play in this dynamic: Lower class individuals report being more reluctant to “play politics”— that is, enact Machiavelli’s theory of power. Building on the
findings of Belmi and Laurin (2016), we suggest that salient social experiences can predict theory of power endorsement. Social class, or socioeconomic status (SES), is a cultural lens through which people see and relate to their social world.

Lower class individuals experience greater vigilance to threat, relative to high status individuals, leading them to perceive greater hostility in their environment. Research…finds that low SES individuals experience more hostile emotional reactions to ambiguous social scenarios, and when being teased by a friend. This increased threat vigilance may create a bias such that relatively low SES individuals perceive the powerful as dominant and threatening— endorsing a coercive theory of power.1 Indeed, there is evidence that individuals of lower social class are more cynical than those
occupying higher classes…and that this cynicism is directed toward out-group members—that is, those that occupy higher classes…

The notion that powerful people are likely to engage in manipulation is central to the coercive theory of power, and accordingly, would suggest that lower class individuals would hold a more coercive and less collaborative theory of power.

This latter prediction also lies at the intersection of motivated reasoning (Kunda, 1990), which suggests that people will engage in biased reasoning to maintain a positive self-image, and social dominance theories, which suggest that the powerful will harbor more hierarchy legitimizing beliefs while the powerless will harbor more delegitimizing beliefs (Sidanius & Pratto, 1999). Specifically, we predict that higher class individuals and those with a greater sense of power will be motivated to think positively of their position—as a station achieved by beneficent means, deserved, and legitimate. In contrast, lower class individuals and those who feel relatively powerless are likely to see the powerful and those occupying higher classes as having achieved their position illegitimately, through fear and manipulation. That is, higher class and powerful individuals are likely to hold Aristotelian beliefs about power, while lower class and powerless individuals will be more aligned with the views of Machiavelli. Indeed, it is among the lower class and relatively powerless that beliefs about how power is and ought to be achieved are likely to diverge, resulting in a loss of trust in the powerful.

* Trust is defined as the willingness to be vulnerable to the actions of others—romantic partners, political leaders, social institutions—with the expectation that the trusted party will act in ways that benefit the trustee… Human societies are built on cooperation (Ostrom, 2000), with trust being the social glue that keeps us embedded in a social network of people we depend on, seek counsel from, and trade value with (Kramer, 1999). Americans’ trust in powerful institutions, including the government, remain near record lows (Pew Research Center, 2019). Historical patterns of trust in institutions are linked to poverty rates (Twenge, Campbell, & Carter, 2012) and Elgar (2010) found that income inequality was negatively associated with interpersonal trust across 33 different countries. Similarly, a
large-scale study using the World Values Survey found that interpersonal trust was positively associated with income and education level (Alesina & La Ferrara, 2002). Lower class individuals, then, trust others less. What is less well understood are possible mediators of the relation between class and trust. We propose that one is theories of power. Indeed, one’s beliefs about power—as a collaborative or coercive endeavor—reflect perceptions about how powerful individuals and institutions are likely to act and whether those actions are guided by moral principles that favor collaboration or coercion in the pursuit of self-interest. Previously cited evidence that low SES individuals distrust politicians who present themselves as interpersonally warm is consistent with the notion that the relationship between social class and trust is mediated by the belief that power is attained through manipulation and deceit (Tan & Kraus, 2018). That is, we expect that lower class individuals will endorse more coercive and less collaborative theories of
power, leading to decreased trust.

* feeling powerful was associated with greater collaborative theory of power endorsement and less coercive theory of power endorsement. In other words, people who feel powerful tend to believe that power is achieved and maintained through collaborative tendencies, whereas the relatively powerless believe that power is gained and maintained by dominating, threatening, and coercing others (see Table 3). The same pattern of findings occurs with respect to one’s social class.
Subjective SES was positively associated with both dominance and prestige, yet we found that subjective SES was positively
correlated with collaborative, and negatively correlated with coercive, beliefs about power.

Although these findings suggest that one’s sense of power is associated with more collaborative and less coercive theories on power, findings also indicate that people generally endorse the beliefs about power that are consistent with their personal experience of dominance- or prestige-based power. That is, coercive beliefs about power were positively associated with feelings of dominance and negatively associated with feelings of prestige while collaborative beliefs about power were positively associated with feelings of prestige and negatively associated with feelings of dominance.

* Beliefs about how power is gained and maintained were also associated with dispositional emotional experience. Consistent
with the literature linking subjective well-being with concern for others, holding a collaborative theory of power was associated with the experience of all positive emotions measured by the DPES (dispositional positive emotions scale) (Shiota et al., 2006); coercive beliefs about power were related to the experience of fewer of these emotions…

* psychopathic and Machiavellian personality traits were positively associated with coercive theories of power, and negatively associated with collaborative theories. Narcissism was also positively associated with coercive theories of power, but unrelated to collaborative theories (see Table 6). Coercive theories of power were also more strongly held by less agreeable, and less conscientious individuals, whereas collaborative theories of power were held by more agreeable, more conscientious, and more extraverted individuals.

* …people who feel powerful tend to believe that power is achieved and maintained through collaborative tendencies, whereas the relatively powerless believe that power is gained and maintained by dominating, threatening, and coercing others (see Table 3). The same pattern of findings occurs with respect to one’s social class. Subjective SES (socio-economic status) was positively associated with both dominance and prestige, yet we found that subjective SES was positively correlated with collaborative, and negatively correlated with coercive, beliefs about power. Although these findings suggest that one’s sense of power is associated with more collaborative and less coercive theories on power, findings also indicate that people generally endorse the beliefs about power that are consistent with their personal experience of dominance- or prestige-based power. That is, coercive beliefs about power were positively associated with feelings of dominance and negatively associated with feelings of prestige while collaborative beliefs about power were positively associated with feelings of prestige and negatively associated with feelings of dominance.

* people who held collaborative theories of power also reported a greater internal locus of control, a weaker social dominance orientation, and both dominance and respect/admiration related achievement motivations (Cassidy & Lynn, 1989). There was also a small, but significant, positive correlation between collaborative theories of power and right-wing authoritarianism beliefs (Aletmeyer, 1996). In the context of findings that relatively high SES and powerful individuals endorse collaborative theories of power, it may be these same individuals who endorse the hierarchy-legitimizing beliefs captured by the RWA scale. People who endorsed a more coercive theory of power also reported a greater external locus of control and were more likely to endorse a social dominance orientation and modern sexist beliefs…

* Consistent with Aristotle’s (350 B.C./1962) belief that gaining and maintaining power is rooted in the pursuit of social good through moral action, we found that collaborative theories of power were positively associated with the endorsement
of all five moral foundations, measured by the MFQ20: authority, fairness, harm, in-group, and purity.

* One’s sense of power was positively associated with feeling greater dominance and prestige. However, feeling powerful
was associated with greater collaborative theory of power endorsement, and less coercive theory of power endorsement…

* one’s subjective SES decreases when people compare themselves upward to higher status individuals, leading to perceptions of unfairness, hostility, and aggression. Similarly, social dominance theories would suggest that individuals occupying a lower class position will hold hierarchy delegitimizing beliefs while higher class individuals will perceive their position— and the means used to achieve it—in a positive, legitimizing light. Consistent with the correlations reported in Study 1, and H4, we expected that making upward (vs. downward) social comparisons would decrease participants’ subjective experience of social class, decrease collaborative, and increase coercive beliefs about power.

* collaborative theories of power were positively associated with interpersonal trust, while coercive theories of power were negatively associated with interpersonal trust (see Table 8). Interpersonal trust was also positively associated with
feelings of power and social class, but unrelated to feelings of dominance and prestige.

* For centuries, political scholars have theorized about how to gain and maintain power, with two opposing accounts first established in the writings of Aristotle (350 B.C./1962) and Machiavelli (1532/1961). The findings presented here suggest that these theories live, not only in historical texts, but in the minds of ordinary citizens. Consistent with Aristotle’s writing, the collaborative theory of power presupposes that rising in hierarchies is rooted in human virtues, social coordination, and concern for the greater good. In contrast, coercive theories of power hold that power is to be found in threat, force, and dominance over others.

* Given that lower social class leads to a more coercive and less collaborative view of power, it is perhaps unsurprising that lower social class is also associated with distrust of others. Specifically, individuals of a lower social class report less trust in powerful individuals and institutions (Alesina & La Ferrara, 2002; Twenge et al., 2014), and theories of power offer a novel account of this relationship. We find that coercive theory of power endorsement was associated with decreased trust in others, and collaborative theory of power endorsement trust—increased trust… Further, we find that individuals of lower social class hold less collaborative theories of power and this mediates their reduced trust. Alternatively stated, individuals of higher social class hold more collaborative theories of power and trust more.

* feeling dominance and prestige—while both positively associated with power— have divergent effects on trust, and that
theories of power that mediate these effects. Specifically, we find that feelings of prestige were positively associated with trust, via collaborative theories of power. However, feelings of dominance were negatively associated with trust, via coercive theories of power.

* time and context may play a role in theory of power endorsement; Machiavelli (1532/1961) proposed his formula for gaining and maintaining power in a particularly turbulent time, characterized by war and overthrown, short-lived governments. Conflict also appears to influence more modern preferences for leadership; participants preferred more masculine faces in leadership judgments during simulated wartime versus peacetime contexts (Re et al., 2013). As such, theories of power may become increasingly coercive when faced with real or perceived threats.

* This possibility, that lower status individuals assume power is to be attained through coercive strategies, is echoed also in the recent political past. Donald Trump’s coercive approach to gaining power in the 2016 Presidential Election was favored primarily by low SES voters, while high status individuals— even Republicans— denounced his tactics and candidacy (Graham, 2016; Silver, 2016). Moreover, Donald Trump often touted that he would “drain the swamp” in Washington, DC—presumably, playing on the perception of these same voters that powerful individuals in government were selfish, corrupt, and dishonest (Overby, 2017). Taken together, recent empirical findings and voting trends suggest that low (vs. high) status individuals will endorse a more coercive, and less collaborative, theory of power.

About Luke Ford

I've written five books (see Amazon.com). My work has been followed by the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, and 60 Minutes. I teach Alexander Technique in Beverly Hills (Alexander90210.com).
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