The Social Neuroscience of Power and Its Links with Empathy, Cooperation and Cognition

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Authors: Marco Vega and Jamie Ward

Originally published in ‘The Intoxication of Power’  (2016) a book of essay edited by Peter Garrard and Graham Robinson


1 Conceptualising power

The concept of power is of interest to researchers in a number of different fields. Historians, philosophers, political scientists, sociologists and now psychologists and neuroscientists have each conceptualised and studied power in their own way. Sociologists such as Max Webber conceived of power as ‘the probability that one actor within a social relationship will be in a position to carry out his own will despite resistance, regardless of the basis on which this probability rests’ (Weber et al., 1978: 53). Political philosophers such as Thomas Hobbes understood power as the ‘present means to obtain some future apparent good’ (2010: 40). And political scientists such as Robert Dhal made attempts to formally express power thus: ‘A has power over B to the extent that he can get B to do something that B would not otherwise do’ (1957: 202). Though there is a noticeable overlap between the different definitions, it would be impossible to find a definition of power that satisfies the research interests of all disciplines.

In psychology and social neuroscience, power is often conceptualised with the aims of quantification: for instance, using questionnaire-based assessments or small-scale interpersonal interactions. This leads to basic and reductive definitions of power, which are easy to study empirically. Thus power is often understood simply as the capacity to influence another person or group (Anderson et al., 2012; Copeland, 1994; French Jr & Raven, 1959). In other words, a person is said to have power when they are able to use certain behaviours, material objects or information to motivate others to act in a directed fashion. Some theorists, however, prefer to portray power in a dominating light, defining it by using negative connotations, such as ‘an individual who exerts or can exert control  or influence over another person’ (Schmid Mast et al., 2009), or ‘the capacity to alter others’ states by providing or withholding resources and administering punishments’ (Keltner et al., 2003). Nevertheless, for the purposes of this chapter power will be treated as the influencing capacity – albeit one that can manifest itself though physical violence or threats (at one extreme), or as the truthful promise of goods and services (at the other extreme).

There are number of ways in which power is acquired and used. French and Raven, for example, popularised the ‘six bases of power’ (Raven, 2008): ‘coercive power’ based on force and coercion; ‘reward power’ based on the promise of financial, social or emotional rewards; ‘legitimate power’ based on recognised structural positions of authority; ‘ referent power’ based on group membership or affiliation; ‘expert power’ based on recognised knowledge, skills and abilities; and ‘informational power’ based on the possession of highly desired information (Raven, 2008). Each of these bases is meant to capture a different method for influencing the behaviour of others. Nevertheless, they differ in their effectiveness and stability in varying contexts. While there are empirical and methodological difficulties in assessing the validity of French and Raven’s model (see Podsakoff & Schriescheim, 1985 for discussion), it still serves as a good example of how power could be broken down into more nuanced components.

One of the difficulties in studying power is that it is often studied in conjunction with ‘social status’ – though this is not always made explicit by researchers. One of the reasons for this is that there is a high degree of conceptual overlap between the terms, rendering it difficult to separate them empirically. For example, it is often the case that the social mechanisms that grant status are also those that grant power. Throughout this chapter, we will also be considering research papers that focus on the effect of social status as a proxy for power.

There are two conceptions of ‘status’ that are popular throughout the literature. The first is to define status in terms of prestige or respect (Anderson & Kilduff, 2009; Blader & Chen, 2012; Fiske & Berdahl, 2007; Henrich & Gil-White, 2001). In this sense, status is understood as social reward granted to individuals who have esteemed qualities. While this approach definitely picks out an important aspect of social status, it is limited in only conceiving of status in a positive light. A second, more general approach is to treat status as an externally ascribed measure of social worth (Chen et al., 2012). In other words, people’s externally perceived value results in them being ranked on a status hierarchy. Socioeconomic status (SES) is the most well-known metric of this.

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