Even Petty Power Corrupts
Ever wondered why some people in a position of power, but without the concomitant rank or status, tend to exert their power unreasonably?
People in menial jobs can have, within their petty fiefdoms, the ability to inconvenience people. Rub a TSA agent the wrong way, for example, and you could be signaled for expanded screening. Summer-time poolguards can be seen checking excessively over kids and parents who show no deference to the poolguards’ authority. At bureaucratic offices, clerks and stern supervisors sometimes impose petty rules that must be followed for the sake of the rules—and nobody likes dealing with them!
The power tripper’s fragile ego hinges on exerting his/her power.
Power Increases People’s Sense of Entitlement
This anecdotal fact seems to be substantiated by this study, titled “The Destructive Nature of Power Without Status.” The researchers make a case that neither power nor low status independently provokes people to mistreat others. Rather, the combination of these two facets of social interaction makes abuse that much more likely.
We predicted that when people have a role that gives them power but lacks status—and the respect that comes with that status—then it can lead to demeaning behaviors. Put simply, it feels bad to be in a low-status position and the power that goes with that role gives them a way to take action on those negative feelings.
One way to prevent such power dynamics is to find ways to make all individuals feel respected and valued irrespective of the status of their roles. “Respect assuages negative feelings about their low-status roles and leads them to treat others positively.” Courtesy pays!
- Some people will despise anyone they suspect is exerting power over them.
- Compare to the 1971 Stanford Prison Experiment, in which a group of students was appointed either prisoners or guards in a mocked-up prison. Although all the participants understood they were part of a simulation, the “guards” treated the “prisoners” in extremely humiliating ways because, per the researchers, the guards recognized that they lacked respect and admiration in the eyes of others. (This controversial experiment was the subject of a 2015 docudrama.)
- Compare to the concept of the Napoleon Complex, through which, shorter men could overcompensate for their height by means of social aggressiveness. (Napoleon wasn’t short.)
- Cf. The “Waiter Rule” states that how you treat seemingly insignificant people says a lot about your personality and priorities.