Just what is power?


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For me as a psychologist, it is interesting to look at the whole concept of power. What is power? Why is it so attractive and important and what effect does it have on those wielding it, respectively on those of the “receiving end”?

Personally, I like and concur with the Oxford Dictionary’s definition of power: The capacity or ability to direct or influence the behavior of others or the course of events.

We all have faced power and its effects one way or the other, in my case it was definitely with my mother… In my family she was the one who exhibited the unchallenged source of power. Her word was law, not to be wavered by temper tantrums or, later in my teenage years, well reflected arguments, cajolements or persistency. (In 18 laborious years, I not once managed to get the permission to come home past midnight.) And nowadays I bargain for extra time with my Professors and “tread heavily under the yoke” of my editor. In other words: I have experienced my share of being directed and influenced by others...

Unfortunately though, I don’t have enough experience in executing power myself to be able to share any stories with you (I’m working on that– let me get back to you in a few years), but I do have access to a lot of scientific information.

The roots for our hunger to obtain power can be explained with help of the Control Theory. It states that humans are evolutionarily designed to be on a constant quest to explain, predict and control their surroundings. The more you understand and are able to influence your surroundings, the less likely aversive things incidences are going to happen to you, and the more likely you will be able to pursue enjoyable circumstances. In our struggle to explain, predict and control, we develop strategies to support our efforts such as studying our environment and obtaining one or more elements of power.

We can pretty much distinguish five elements of power:

• Human Capital (Knowledge)
• Social Capital (Connections, Networks)
• Erotic Capital (Beauty, Charisma)
• Political Capital (Political Influence, Military strength, originally physical strength)
• Financial Capital (Wealth)

The more elements we have access to, the more control we exert. In fact, even our brain supports the process: When we use power, we release excess amounts of the neurotransmitter dopamine which belongs to the reward-system of our brain and feels reeeally good. That way we learn relatively quickly that power is desirable. The unfortunate side effect of its addictive qualities explains why almost everybody strives for power, but almost no one disclaims it voluntarily.

As for those who yield to power: A single variable determines whether they get to know the effect of dopamine or not…

Either their brains suffer from restraint of dopamine which leads to unhappiness and a cocktail of stress hormones to make the unfortunate experience thoroughly miserable. Or they experience a similar rewarding effect that can be ecstatic.

That variable is the evaluation of the qualities of the person who exerts that power! If the power holder is perceived as someone worthy, competent and admirable the experience of being directed and influenced is a positive one that people might even seek voluntarily.

This explains not only why I never resented my mother’s ruling (ok, maybe briefly every once in a while), but also how a magazine such as Arabian Business is honoring 100 people in such a delightful way. In the course of attaining power, these persons have managed to convince us of their admirable traits, competence and their suitability as role models for coming generations.

In regard to the fact that they not only face competition, hardship and a whole lot of work but also carry the responsibility for many, from employees up to whole countries, admiringly I would like to join Arabian Business to say “chapeau” and “congratulations”!

* Silja Litvin has a a  Masters in Psychology and is currently working on a PhD in Psychology

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Posted by: Mahad

Power is the prescient knowledge that overcomes the challenges that people come across in life.

Posted by: Massimiliano B.

Great article. What is your opinion regarding the fact that power is also connected (simplifying) to many circles centered on the individual - the circle of what is perceived, the circle of what is believed to be able to influence, the circle of what is believed to have an influence on the individual, and as such - power as the ability to satisfy the drive rooted in Man's most primitive brain to achieve maximum economy by unburdening himself with the cognitive load of what-ifs connected to uncertainty?

Could this also be a possible alt. hypothesis of why do we surrender power easily to people considered to be "trusted and able to cope for (also) our good" - as we implicitly trust them to be able to lower the projected cognitive load (i.e. "allow us not to think about stuff, because they take care of it well") and actual effort of having to perceive, decode, relate, and act upon our environment precisely to lower the perceived discrepancy between as-is and to-be to tolerable levels..?

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