Originally posted on September 27, 2011
A recent study found that low status people with power tend to abuse that power:
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.”
The researchers argue that the lack of respect given to low status people may cause some to project their feelings of insecurity and unworthiness on others, demeaning, even abusing them. The researchers reached this conclusion based on their experiments with students. They assigned one with a high-status “idea producer” role and the other a low-status “worker” role. They then had the students choose between the most to least demeaning activities to have others perform. The high-power/low-status students went for the more demeaning activities, such as say “I’m filthy” five times, bark like a dog three times, and count backward from 500 in increments of seven.
According to the report:
Our findings indicate that the experience of having power without status, whether as a member of the military or a college student participating in an experiment, may be a catalyst for producing demeaning behaviors that can destroy relationships and impede goodwill.
While the researchers related these findings to jobs, it can also relate to other elements of society, like political movements. For example, look at how the Tea Party regards those they disagree with. The Tea Party gained a lot of power between 2009 and 2010, yet they do not hold a high status in American culture. That might explain the cheers for the death penalty and letting a person without health insurance die. It might also explain the booing of a serving solider who is gay.
One can also see a similar dynamic in the feminist movement. Many aspects of feminist doctrine require men and boys to engage in demeaning, self-deprecating acts and theories.
Of course, as the report notes, every high-power/low-status person does not demean or hurt others. Plenty of people in that position treat others well. Yet, there does appear to be a connection between having power with an accompanying status that prompts some people to demean and abuse others.