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What is the concept of power in social psychology?


Power, as the exertion of effort to effect a change, is one of the most significant and examined of all themes. However, the conceptualization of power is far from finished. It is clearly one of those curious phenomena whose breadth makes them easily recognizable even while their depth renders them very difficult to comprehend completely.

This scope poses a conceptual conundrum, as power is important to all three orders of existence: the physical, the vital, and the human. In the physical order, power refers to the causal impact of force—for example, the power of gravity on planetary motion. In this arena, power is ultimately the capacity to mechanistically transform matter or energy. In the biological domain, power is also a central notion to understanding the functioning of life. Examples include the power of the digestive system to transform protein into muscle, or the power of a virus to infect a host.

The concept of power in the human order shares this general notion of transformational ability, yet has distinctive features. In the human order, the transformation sought is something intended by the one wielding power. It is a goal—whether or not the results conform to what was sought. For the to-be-transformed person, the change has an intrinsic meaning. To understand this level, a concept of brute force is insufficient.

Relations between these levels can be very complicated. For example, the conviction that one’s desires can bring about changes on the physical level (say, the belief that one can make it rain by wanting it to) is not power on the physical level, but the psychological experience of one’s power. Conversely, the belief that one’s thoughts are controlled by a radio transmitter in the ceiling, for example, reveals the person’s experienced powerlessness—whether or not any such controlling physical power is actually operating. The relationship of experience with the biological level is even more complex. One’s belief that one cannot do something (lift an object, overcome a disease) may render one less able to do so, whereas an optimistic sense of one’s power can have the reverse impact. So, though the concept of power at the human order is not reducible to explanations from the domains of physical or vital power, it can be interrelated with them.

The Range of Social Power

The concept of power at the human level is usually called social power, indicating its interpersonal context. As the famous sociologist Max Weber defined it, power in this sense is the ability to impose one’s will on others. Yet even at this level of specificity, three dilemmas complicate matters. First, an array of disciplinary cross-currents need clarification, since each of the social sciences includes its own specific sense of power. In the 1930s, philosopher Bertrand Russell presented social power as the meta-concept of all the social sciences. In addition to discovering this commonality, he reasoned that a complete analysis must distinguish among their different senses, for example: economic power (to accumulate and spend wealth), political power (to allocate the community’s legal and financial capital), sociological power (the power of group norms—gender, age, race, and class), moral or religious power (the proverbial “higher power” to inspire or prohibit certain practices), and many others, as well as psychological power.

Second, a complete conceptualization of power must confront a variety of classification schemes that specify different historical types of social power. Three widely cited types are those set forth by historical sociologist Michael Mann, economist John Kenneth Galbraith, and futurologist Alvin Toffler. In the 1980s, Mann specified four types of interacting networks of power—economic, military, political, and ideological—and saw the past century as having been particularly dominated by ideology. In the 1980s, Galbraith analyzed the development of the Western world from feudalism through capitalism as the deployment of three successive types of power: condign (the power to coerce), compensating (the power to reward), and conditioned (the power to change belief). In the 1990s, Toffler identified three historical types of power—violence, wealth, and knowledge—each successively the dominant form for its era. For Toffler, the third wave (the present) is the information age, in which, aided by computers and communications technology, knowledge has become the dominant form of power.

Third, the long history of philosophical scholarship on the importance of power to human flourishing poses another dilemma for articulating the range of the concept. Beginning with the pre-Socratic Greeks and revived for the later generations by Friedrich Nietzsche, Henri Bergson, Martin Heidegger, and Paul Tillich, philosophy offers a tradition of conceiving of power existentially, as the very core of the person—the force of life—coextensive with a properly human life itself. In this understanding, having a sense of one’s power to develop one’s potential, to enact one’s destiny, is the very hallmark of what makes a person human. Tillich’s books on the subject (The Courage to Be, 1952, and Love, Power and Justice: Ontological Analyses and Ethical Applications, 1954) were particularly foundational to existential psychologists.

The Psychology of Social Power

Although the large scope and many permutations of social power are exciting and evocative, its specifically psychological dimension remains to be understood. As the psychotherapist Rollo May showed, the effective use of other types of social power is dependent on one’s emotions, motivations, perception, and thinking—that is, on the psychological dimension. How else to account, for example, for how a person with enormous wealth could experience his or her life as not worth living?

Social power is usually taken to be unidirectional: the power to get someone else to behave in a certain way, as Weber noted. However, a psychological analysis finds two bivalent directionalities to power, because the person one wants to behave in a certain way could also be oneself. The genius of Sigmund Freud, after all, was to reveal—through his psychoanalysis of everyday mistakes, compulsions, obsessions, and anxieties—that power over one’s own consciousness was far from assured or easy to attain. Therefore, in its psychological sense, power has two contexts: with regard to another or with regard to one’s self. Psychoanalyst Ethel Person identified these two kinds of power as interpersonal (power over others) and personal (power as strength, self-confidence, efficacy). This latter kind she called authentic power, and described it as “the ability to live fully, with few regrets and fewer recriminations.”

Psychological power over the self would seem to be the very condition for mental health, as the inability to remember what happened (repression) or the inability to stop thinking a certain thought (obsession) or to stop repetitively performing a certain action (compulsion) would seem to clearly indicate that lacking “self-power” is the hallmark of psychopathology. The anorexic, for example, who feels compelled to lose more weight though she weighs only eighty-five pounds, seems caught in a vortex over which she is powerless. However, themes of psychological power and powerlessness circle around each other very complexly. Perhaps controlling her weight so strictly is the only context in which the girl feels any power. Her psychology is indeed one of felt powerlessness, but the symptom may be a more subtle expression, rather than the cause, of that dilemma. A psychologically destructive experience of powerlessness, insignificance, and inferiority can ensue from a dynamic in a variety of unequal relationships (husband and wife, parent and child, boss and employee). For example, May showed the psychological cost to his African American patient of the impact of racism, and Joanna Macy extended this understanding to the whole society in her analysis of the sense of futility to prevent nuclear war that was widely felt during the 1980s.

A healthy sense of one’s power with regard to oneself, or self-control—as a self-motivated autonomy—is considered a hallmark of psychological health. This capacity, usually called inner power or empowerment in self-help popular psychology literature, is the basis for many theories of psychological well-being. It was the cornerstone of the influential personality theory known as individual psychology, formulated by Alfred Adler. Likewise, May’s classic analysis of love showed the prerequisite of a healthy capacity to will something to be. In this sense, psychology’s analysis parallels Nietzsche’s rendering of the will to power—not power over the world or others, but the power to be self-directed. This means a will to potential—to potentiate, to actualize, to realize (as in to make real) one’s potential to be the person one can be. Such a project cannot be a mere theory but a lived, everyday reality. One finds the power to unfold one’s potential in actual encounters. To do so, one must affirm one’s own being. In that sense, power cannot be given to one person by another, it must be enacted.

The other direction of psychological power is power over another. Whereas power with regard to oneself is of primary importance to psychotherapists, this second type has attracted the most interest from areas beyond psychology, from boardrooms to ballrooms. From closing the deal to getting love, people have an abiding motivation to understand how to gain and deploy social power with regard to others. Dale Carnegie’s How to Win Friends and Influence People (1936) launched a whole cottage industry that has only grown more sophisticated over time. This inquiry is so fascinating precisely because social power is not reducible to force, even in its most harsh form. The range of ways to influence another to do one’s bidding extends across the entire spectrum from coercive to seductive.

Both Galbraith and Russell long ago specified three different means of influence: the power to threaten adverse consequences, the power to provide resources as rewards, and the power of persuasion. Expressed in an even older key, these three types of social power are the threat of the stick, the promise of the carrot, and the power to get the other to change his or her mind. No matter how primitive (pay the bill or go to jail) or sophisticated (deferred stock options) the inducements of sticks and carrots may be, these two uses of social power are no real mystery to psychology. Research regarding their use involves when and with whom to employ which one, and how to optimally arrange and administer the contingencies. However, the third type—the power to influence others to think differently to get them to behave differently—reveals how psychologically deep the use of social power can be. The range of persuasive techniques and applications is enormous: Impression management, perceptual shifting, and motivational speeches are all used in direct appeals with a psychological infrastructure, but these and other techniques also underlie much of the work in public relations, selling, negotiating, propaganda, leadership, inspiration, and mass advertising. All these involve using social power to get others to do, think, feel, want, see, or believe as desired.

An analysis of persuasive appeals by Robert Greene identified each technique with a maxim and a historical illustration. Examples include always say less than necessary; when asking for help, appeal to people’s self-interest, never to their mercy or gratitude; do not build fortresses to protect yourself as isolation is dangerous; and preach the need for change but never reform too much at once. Such techniques were studied for their efficacy, regardless of the good or bad ends to which they were used. Con artists and corporate executives, after all, often use similar strategies.

Beyond the social power of changing the self and others toward one’s own preferences, many other less well-known types of power have also been studied. Two particularly insightful typologies can represent such analyses: those by May, and George Kunz. May identified not only three types of social power over another (exploitative, manipulative, and competitive) but also two other types: nutrient, a power for the sake of the other, and integrative, a power to work with the other to accomplish something together. Kunz identified three types of power: behavioral, the power to exert effort to accomplish tasks; cognitive, the power that comes with knowing and understanding; and affective, the power to enjoy pleasure, to be satisfied, fulfilled, and happy.

Sources of Power

A final question concerns the sources of power. Beyond the deployment of techniques and practices, the question remains as to where they get their efficacy. This issue is complex and unsettled not only because of its controversial theme but also because the wide variety of sources makes any neat effort at classification extraordinarily difficult. For power in relation to one’s self, everything from the way the young child’s initial moves toward autonomy are met by the unconditional love of the parent to the existential courage to be in the face of one’s aging can provide a wellspring. Clinical and personality psychologists such as Erik H. Erikson, R. D. Laing, D. W. Winnicott, Karen Horney, and Abraham Maslow have provided penetrating analyses of these developmental issues.

Among the many studies regarding the sources of power with regard to another, three much-cited classic studies and one later one provide useful illustration. The classic studies were by sociologist StevenLukes, social psychologists John French and Bertram Raven, and Galbraith. Lukes examined power in institutional structures and saw that, beyond the power to make decisions and set agendas using the usual sources of influence and persuasion, lay a third source of power, less visible and measurable: the power of language, ideas, and values to shape preferences and even taken-for-granted norms. His work articulated this critical power and developed in parallel with similar studies by French philosopher Michel Foucault and Brazilian educator Paulo Freire.

A second classic analysis on the sources of power, still very widely cited, especially in organizational psychology, is the research by French and Raven in the 1950s to 1970s. They identified five sources of power. Positional or legitimate power, derived from the position of authority of the person, is the most evident and usually most important. Generally related to it are the second and third sources—reward power and coercive power—the also obvious abilities to deliver the respective carrots and sticks on which much social influence depends. Unlike these three, which have come to be called hard power, the other two are sources of soft power. They are expert or information power, the evident possession of credible and useful expertise, and referent power, the ability to attract and retain loyal followers, which can be used and misused by charismatic leaders, but more mundanely is a talent for social networking.

The third classic analysis is Galbraith’s specification of the three sources as personality, property, and organization. As a source of power, personality means the power of an individual person—such as a king or leader—to effect change in the world. Galbraith sees this source as having been largely eclipsed by another—property—with the development of capitalism. However, that source, in turn, was eclipsed with the more recent development of another—organizations, the huge bureaucratic corporate and government structures that provide the source of so much of contemporary power, especially through their ability to shape and mold even one’s desires and self-understanding.

Beyond these classic studies, a new generation of researchers are examining a different source of power, that of insight. For example, Gary Klein, author of Sources of Power: How People Make Decisions (1998) and The Power of Intuition (2004), analyzed the power involved in making effective choices and decisions. His research focuses on urgent situations in the real world, such as those faced by fighter jet pilots, nurses, and firefighters. His findings emphasize that the power to effectively deal with such situations involves a source beyond rational calculations; it draws from more intuitive abilities. Klein elaborates the sources of this power as arising from two major capacities: pattern recognition (seeing the big picture, having situational awareness) and mental simulation (seeing the past and the future). These, in turn, are aided by one’s facility with metaphor, analogy, storytelling, the ability to spot leverage points, as well as one’s ability to improvise, make perceptual discriminations, read another’s intent, and draw on the experience base of the group. This focus on intuition as the source of power is becoming more influential, especially as it is popularized by best-selling writers such as Malcolm Gladwell (Blink: The Power of Thinking without Thinking, 2007). Gladwell’s well-written summaries of the research fascinate a wide audience with examples such as how marriage therapists can predict with almost unerring accuracy which marriages will survive after viewing only seconds of videotape of a couples’ therapy session.


Galbraith, John Kenneth. The Anatomy of Power. Boston: Houghton, 1983. Print.

Greene, Robert. The Forty-Eight Laws of Power. New York: Penguin, 1998. Print.

Greene, Robert. Mastery. New York: Viking, 2012. Print.

Guinote, Ana, and Theresa K. Vescio. The Social Psychology of Power. New York: Guilford, 2010. Print.

Klein, Gary A. Sources of Power: How People Make Decisions. Cambridge: MIT P, 1998. Print.

Kunz, George. The Paradox of Power and Weakness. Albany: State U of New York P, 1998. Print.

Lukes, Steven. Power: A Radical View. 2nd ed. New York: Macmillan, 2005. Print.

Mann, Michael. The Sources of Social Power. New York: Cambridge UP, 2012. Print.

May, Rollo. Power and Innocence. 1972. Reprint. New York: Norton, 1998. Print.

Person, Ethel. Feeling Strong: The Achievement of Authentic Power. New York: HarperCollins, 2002. Print.

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