Toxic power

You’ve been in the situation: the person answering the phone at the bank or phone company is patronising and rude. Or perhaps there is a middle level manager where you work who has been given control over the kitchenette and has become a spoon-Nazi. It is a common phenomenon, where someone with some authority but little perceived status uses their power to belittle others. Now a new study has proved this as a psychological principle and what can be done about it.

The researchers told subjects in the experiment that they would be interacting with a fellow participant in a business exercise where they were randomly assigned to either a high status “idea producer” role or a low status “worker” role. The participants were then asked to select from a list of ten activities for the other to perform. Some of the tasks on the list of ten were more demeaning (such as “bark like a dog three times”) than others.

Those in a high power/low status role chose more demeaning activities for their partners than any other combination of power and status roles.

This fits with real world events. Power in the absence of status may have contributed to the acts of US soldiers in the Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq in 2004. The guards had power but they lacked respect and admiration from others and treated the prisoners in extremely demeaning ways.

What the research tell us is that power itself may not be the corrupting factor, but power combined with position that is not respected may provide a person with a way to release the negative feelings generated by lack of esteem.

The obvious was to overcome this is for society to attempt to find ways to help all individuals to feel respected and valued regardless of the status of their role. It is easier said than done, but would certainly be a worthwhile area of focus for our highly esteemed politicians.

The WellBeing Team

The WellBeing Team

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