How Power without Status Can Prove Destructive

Guard with machine gun

Does Power Always Corrupt?


Do you remember the famous Stanford Prison experiment? What about those images of low-ranking U.S soldiers abusing prisoners in Iraq? What thoughts spring to mind when you learn about people abusing power?  Most of us tend to think that power corrupts. Several studies have examined how people, when given power, will act in atypical ways. However, a recent study by researchers from Stanford University, the University of Southern California, and Northwestern University suggested that power in itself is not a sufficient explanation for these behaviors. There is something else involved. The researchers believe that power needs to be examined as it relates to status.


Power and Aggressive Behavior


According to this research, lacking status usually makes people feel disrespected and unrewarded, conditions that can trigger compensatory behaviors intended to boost self-worth. These behaviors are usually more aggressive in nature. Likewise, power has been associated with aggressive behaviors. Individuals that hold power may have a greater tendency to denigrate others because it produces a sense of entitlement to pursue rewards and goals by more aggressive means.


Focus of Experiment on Power and Status


With these premises in mind, the researchers designed an experiment wherein they randomly assigned 213 undergraduates to high-power or low-power roles that afforded high status or low status. Four possible combinations of power and status produced four distinct types of roles:


·                     High power/high status

·                     High power/low status

·                     Low power/high status

·                     Low power/low status


Role Played by Feelings about Status


Their results showed that the combination of holding a high-power role affording low status leads to more demeaning tendencies than any other combination. The findings suggest that behaviors like those of the U.S military guards at Abu Graib prison or the participants in the Stanford Prison experiment might be better explained when we look at the role that the status variable plays. Perhaps, when individuals mistreat and humiliate others, it is not because of their status per se, but because they feel a lack of respect and admiration for their own roles (low status). Thus, power is the vehicle that gives people the freedom to act according to their motivations, while their own perception of their status influences the type of behavior they exhibit toward others.




Although the researchers found supporting data for this idea, they acknowledge that it is possible to find people in these positions that do treat others respectfully. Therefore, future research should focus on understanding the particular mechanisms that give rise to the demeaning behavior exhibited by those with power but no status.


What do you think? Have you ever experienced or witnessed any of the behaviors described?





Fast, N. J., Halevy, N., Galinsky, D. (2011). The destructive nature of power without status. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology (in press.)


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