Power is intoxicating, but feelings of injustice soon sober up the one with the power. PhD student Joris Lammers investigated the role that the meaning of a power situation has on the automatic effects of power. In his thesis he concludes that feelings of injustice reverse the automatic effects of power on behaviour and cognition. The one with the power becomes more careful and the subordinate displays more uncontrolled behaviour.
According to the standard opinion in social psychology, power has a liberating effect and makes the one with the power impulsive whereas lack of power has a numbing effect and makes people passive. Lammers wanted to know whether the meaning of the power situation also played a role.
He investigated power effects by having students describe a situation in which they felt powerful or powerless, and then getting them to perform assignments. The power situations described could be experienced as just (someone elected president of the student’s union) or as unjust (a ragging situation). The assignments involved playing betting games or solving invented problems. In situations perceived as just, the test subjects with a powerful ‘state of mind’ turned out to bet significantly more and powerless subjects more often chose the safe option. However, if the power was perceived as unjust, these effects reversed and it was the ones with the power who played safe while the powerless subjects made more risky choices.
Zacht’ or ‘zucht’
An earlier experiment had revealed that people in lower power positions were more occupied with the question of what the person in power thought about them and were more inclined to attribute stereotypical thoughts they had about themselves to the one in power. Women who in a role play with a man played the subordinate role subsequently more often chose in tests to complete the letter combination Z*CHT with ‘zacht’ (soft, with feminine associations) than with ‘zucht’, ‘zicht’ or ‘zocht’ (sigh, sight or searched, respectively; neutral). Women in positions of power turned out not to be concerned with what the subordinate man thought about them. They randomly filled in ‘zucht’, ‘zicht’, ‘zacht’ or ‘zocht’. Lammers: ‘These results are logical. If you are in a subordinate position, it’s important to know what your boss thinks of you.’
Lammers also investigated cooperation. According to the standard view, powerful people are less inclined towards cooperation, whereas powerless people eagerly seek cooperation. Via experiments, Lammers concludes that this effect reverses completely if the power is viewed as unjust. In a position of power unjustly acquired, the people with the power were eager to cooperate whereas the subordinate people were not.
Feelings of injustice in a power situation, according to Lammers, could lead to the ‘manager becoming paralysed and the cook spitting into the soup’. An employee further down the ladder cooperates best if he or she views his own position as justified. An employee higher up the ladder is more inclined to cooperate if he or she views his power position as unjust or not evident. Therefore, if the cook receives sufficient valuation for his work, he will find the power of the restaurant owner just. In that situation he will choose security and cooperation instead of reckless opposition.
Lammers will be awarded a PhD by the University of Groningen on 31 January 2008.
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