We’ve all run into it, whether with a bureaucrat generating arbitrary rules and exerting authority to make things difficult – the cop who is abusive or intentionally hostile, or the store clerk who makes a simple transaction complex. This field of study becomes more important as the population expands and we as a society have to learn to live in ever more dense environments. Further is the issue of how business can learn to be more efficient and responsive.
A new study by three universities shows that people holding positions of power with low status tend to demean others, one of the authors said.
The research sheds light on why clerks can seem rude or even why the Abu Ghraib guards humiliated and tortured their prisoners, the researcher said.
In an article to be published in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, researchers studied the relationship between the status and the power of a job, said Nathanael Fast, assistant professor of management and organization at the University of Southern California’s Marshall School of Business.
The study, “The Destructive Nature of Power without Status,” determined that the combination of some authority and little perceived status can be toxic.
“We found that people who had high power and high status, they were pretty cool,” Fast told CNN. “But it was people who had power and lacked status who used their power to require other persons to engage in demeaning behavior.”
In a field of study where psychologists and business schools are now jointly looking at how power shapes business relationships, the study’s authors examined the notions of how low status is “threatening and aversive” and how power “frees people to act on their internal states and feelings,” the researchers say.
“The world was shocked when pictures circulated in 2004 showing low-ranking U.S. soldiers physically and sexually abusing prisoners from the Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq,” the study says. “One could point to these examples as support for the popular idea that ‘power corrupts.’
“However, we believe there is more to the story. Although it is true that the prison guards had power, it is equally true that their roles provided little to no respect and admiration in the eyes of others. They had power but they lacked status. We posit that understanding the combinations of these two variables — power and status — produces key insights into the causes of destructive and demeaning behavior,” the study says.
The researchers held experiments with students who were randomly assigned a high-status “idea producer” role or low-status “worker” role.
The students were asked to select from a list of 10 activities for the others to perform. Five of the most demeaning commands were: Say “I’m filthy” five times, say “I am not worthy” five times, bark like a dog three times, state three negative personal traits and count backward from 500 in increments of seven.
The least five demeaning activities were: Write a short essay on your experiences today, say a funny joke, clap hands 50 times, do five pushups, and jump up and down 10 times on one leg, the study said.
The research found that “individuals in high-power/low-status roles chose more demeaning activities for their partners (e.g., bark like a dog, say “I am filthy”) than did those in any other combination of power and status roles.”…