Power is a force that needs an object: To have power, a person has to have it over something, or someone.
One would think that this would be the appeal of power—to be able to control things, to change them to fit your vision of reality. (This can obviously be good or bad, depending on who’s in power and what their vision is.) But a new study suggests that people who desire power are mostly looking to control one thing—themselves.
The study authors, from the University of Cologne, the University of Groningen, and Columbia University, present two different conceptions of power—power as influence and power as autonomy. “Power as influence is expressed in having control over others, which could involve responsibility for others,” they write. “In contrast, power as autonomy is a form of power that allows one person to ignore and resist the influence of others and thus to shape one’s own destiny.” Their question: Which of those things, influence or autonomy, would satisfy people’s desire for power?
In the first part of the study, 100 participants took an online survey asking them to imagine that they’d been offered a promotion at work. Some participants were told that the promotion gave them more influence over subordinates but less autonomy; others were told they had more autonomy to set their own goals but less influence. Neither scenario included a salary bump, and in either case, their boss would be equally happy whether they said yes or no. When asked if they’d accept their new role, 62 percent of people in the higher-autonomy group took the promotion, while only 26 percent in the higher-influence group did the same. The numbers were similar in a repeat survey in which all participants were offered both promotions.