Kings are more powerful than gods, for one needn’t believe in them to fear their judgment. – Malachi, The Collectors
It feels good to have power and feel powerful. I mean, that’s why I’ve always liked being the eldest sibling. That’s why I like doing pushups. That’s why I prefer playing basketball against overly shy 5th graders.
All right, maybe being powerful isn’t the only reason I like doing those things (except for playing with the 5th graders—those kids are WEAK).
From a scientific perspective, power is defined as the experience of or feeling as though one has asymmetrical control over valued resources. For example, parents have power over their children because they’re the ones who “control” the money, food, etc. Or a manager at a store has power over his/her customers because the manager decides whether the customer can shop there.
However, you can also imagine times where these power roles flip. For example, if the parent is incapacitated, the child now has “power” over the resources. Or if the customers all write negative reviews about the manager, they have the power.
So as you can see, power isn’t a uniform construct, and in fact, we can define power even more precisely: structural power versus psychological power.
Structural power is when there is an objective difference in interpersonal control. For example, a politician who has say over the allocation of funds, or a policeman who can force you to act according to the laws.
However, structural power, in the end, is still subservient to psychological power, i.e., the feeling that someone has power. For example: Why do people follow the orders of the President? Is he able to force them to behave if they don’t want to? Can he control their minds to follow his orders?
Of course not (…or at least I’m pretty sure). So what happens, then, is people attribute him greater power, or in other words, they feel they have less power than him and thus obey his commands. But let me borrow a riddle from Game of Thrones to illuminate this.
In a room sit three great men, a king, a priest, and a rich man with his gold. Between them stands a sell-sword, a little man of common birth and no great mind. Each of the great ones bids him slay the other two. ‘Do it,’ says the king, ‘for I am your lawful ruler.’ ‘Do it,’ says the priest, ‘for I command you in the names of the gods.’ ‘Do it,’ says the rich man, ‘and all this gold shall be yours.’ So tell me – who lives and who dies?
At first, you may think: “Well, really the sell-sword has the most power because he is the one who gets to decide.” That is, regardless of the others’ structural power, the sell-sword has the psychological and (in this case) actual power, for he has the asymmetrical control over the valued resource of life.
But what if the king is able to persuade the sell-sword to do his bidding? Is it really the sell-sword or the king who has the power?
In the upcoming week/s, we’ll discuss how having power affects your psychology. That is, does power lead to corruption? And if so, why? Or if you’re made to feel powerful, would you act differently than if you were made to feel powerless?
As I’m the one with those answers, though, currently I have the power over you.
Briñol, P., Petty, R. E., Durso, G. R. O., & Rucker, D. D. Power and persuasion: Processes by which power influences evaluative judgments. Submitted for publication.