President Barack Obama is arguably the most powerful man in the world right now. He’s the head of government of the number one global hyperpower: the US currently boasts the most powerful economy in the world, the most powerful military in the world, the most powerful education and scientific institutions in the world, the most powerful cultural institutions in the world and it “owns” the most important communication platform in the world, the internet.
Not my words.
The title of “most powerful man in the world” is justified, right? So this week on the N of Us, mere days after US President’s Day, we’re looking at a single theory: the most widely accepted theory of social power in social psychology, introduced in 1958 by John R. P. French and Bertram Raven.
The processes of power are pervasive, complex, and often disguised in our society.
So begins The Bases of Social Power, French and Raven’s first stab at distinguishing what gives some people power over others. It’s a powerful topic; power leads to influence - to getting people to do what you want them to do and to think how you want them to think. And over the course of 10 pages - including references - they identify five bases that give one guy, whom they call ‘O’, influence over a person, whom they call ‘P’.
Our theory of social influence and power is limited to influence on the person, P, produced by a social agent, O, where O can be either another person, a role, a norm, a group, or a part of a group. The influence of O on System A in the life space of P is defined as the resultant force on System A which has its source in an Act of O. This resultant force induced by O consists of two components: a force to change the system in the direction induced by O and an opposing resistance set up by the same act of O. By this definition the influence of O does not include P's own forces nor the forces induced by other social agents. Accordingly the "influence" of O must be clearly distinguished from O's "control" of P.
And with that in mind, there are six bases of power.
First up, Reward.
Since O mediates the reward, he controls the probability that P will receive it. ..The utilization of actual rewards (instead of promises) by O will tend over time to increase the attraction of P toward O and therefore the referent power of O over P.
Also known as the carrot in the equation carrot + stick. But remember, there’s no such thing as a free lunch.Allow me to diverge into something a little more chillaxed.
In terms of carrot-power, few businesses fly the flag of reward-based power structures higher than Lululemon, super-brand, and athletic-wear cult.
Like many athletic-wear companies, Lululemon has a system of “ambassadors” which, through the power of rewarding them a pile of free stuff, access to free classes, an ego massage and some free publicity, Lulu gets one big chunk of their advertising, for free.
Ambassadors receive no pay, but are invited to teach free classes in their local Lululemon store, in order to publicise their own classes.
This system, is genius. Ambassadors can certainly benefit massively from the arrangement – the fitness industry is a crowded market, and having “Lulu backing” can go a long way in getting bums on mats and trainers on the treadmill. And getting some free clothes to boot can save some cash.
The range of reward power is specific to those regions within which O can reward P for conforming. The use of rewards to change systems within the range of reward power tends to increase reward power by increasing the probability attached to future promises.
And thus the faithful continue to give, for free.
OK. So compare this with the next basis French and Raven described. Please, join me on a trip back in time to the renaissance to talk about a centuries old theory of shock and awe.
A Prince should therefore disregard the reproach of being thought cruel where it enables him to keep his subjects united and obedient. For he who quells disorder by a very few signal examples will in the end be more merciful than he who from too great leniency permits things to take their course and so to result in rapine and bloodshed; for these hurt the whole State, whereas the severities of the Prince injure individuals only.
Machiavelli has managed to capture the imaginations of the subjugating and the subjugated for more than six centuries with his description of a Prince who prefers the stick to the carrot.
Coercive power - French and Raven’s technical term - has been used as a technique to control people for millennia. It’s corporal punishment in schools. It’s playground and grown-up bullying. It’s political blackmail, smear campaigns and philosophical treatises about the architecture of panopticon prisons. It’s the Drill Sergeant in Full Metal Jacket.
It’s exactly the same principle as reward power, but exactly the opposite.
Coercive power of O/ P stems from the expectation on the part of P that he will be punished by O if he fails to conform to the influence attempt...The strength of coercive power depends on the magnitude of the negative valence of the threatened punishment multiplied by the perceived probability that P can avoid the punishment by conformity, i.e., the probability of punishment for nonconformity minus the probability of punishment for conformity.
Whereas reward’s objective is increasing attraction, coercion’s objective is compliance.
There is, of course, another way. French and Raven’s third basis of power has to do with the influence of the social world on us as individuals. It’s called Legitimate power.
The US President has legitimate power over the people in the US because he was granted it in what they believe to be a legitimate way: he was democratically elected. Regardless of your political persuasion, as long as you believe the election process wasn’t rigged, his position at the executive helm means that he ought to have control over the decisions made for and about the population.
I said believe twice there. There’s a reason.
The feeling of "oughtness" may be an internalization from his parents, from his teachers, from his religion, or may have been logically developed from some idiosyncratic system of ethics. He will speak of such behaviors with expressions like "should," "ought to," or "has a right to." Conceptually, we may think of legitimacy as a valence in a region which is induced by some internalized norm or value. ...cultural values include such things as age, intelligence, caste, and physical characteristics ...Acceptance of the social structure is another basis for legitimate power..Designation by a legitimizing agent is a third basis for legitimate power.
The problem with legitimate power is that those internalised norms and values can be manipulated in a way that those who don’t legitimately have power can pretend to just by co-opting the signals of legitimacy.
The moral of the story is don’t impersonate someone who has legitimate power to get a discounted donut.
The next basis of power is like legitimate power, but it’s much more personal in nature.
If O is a person toward whom P is highly attracted, P will have a desire to become closely associated with O. If O is an attractive group, P will have a feeling of membership or a desire to join. If P is already closely associated with O he will want to maintain this relationship. P's identification with O can be established or maintained if P behaves, believes, and perceives as O does. Accordingly O has the ability to influence P, even though P may be unaware of this referent power.
In other words, who you want to be like or think you’re like has an impressive power over you to get you to do things or think things, from what clothes to buy to lifestyle decisions. Even political diplomacy. Remember the “Special Relationship”?
Peer pressure is a thing.
That was the cast of Grange Hill singing Just Say No. The second to last basis of power in French and Raven’s taxonomy is Expert power.
Wherever expert influence occurs it seems to be necessary both for P to think that O knows and for P to trust that O is telling the truth...
It doesn’t necessarily mean that O is right.
That’s Adam Rutherford reporting for the BBC in 2011 for the programme Science Betrayed.
The power that the expert - in that case, Andrew Wakefield - has had on global public health has been devastating and profound. And it endures; despite being stripped of his professional qualification, the expertise that he traded upon to demonstrate the falsified results continues to influence people who, themselves, have significant referent power.
Since power is here defined in terms of the primary changes, the influence of the content on a related opinion is not a case of expert power as we have defined it, but the initial acceptance of the validity of the content does seem to be based on expert power or referent power.
This is a perfect storm of the bases of power, which has trickled down to social change.
And it’s difficult to reverse it, particularly in an age in which it’s possible to find information that’s easy to validate your opinion - with so-called experts who are on your side.
Into this complicated web of power relationships comes one final basis, added to the list later by Bertram Raven in his 1965 chapter, Social Influence and Power.
The final basis of power is information. Simply put, knowledge is power.
Anyone with knowledge they wish to wield over someone else may wish to take a lesson from the rich pickings of industrial espionage.
In 2006, Joya Williams, an assistant to Coca-Cola’s global brand director, pilfered a secret sample of the company’s newest product. Stowing the vial away inside a brown Armani bag, Williams enlisted two friends to help her rekindle the fires of the famous cola wars.
The thieves penned a cryptic letter to Pepsi under the alias “Dirk”:
“I have information that’s all classified and extremely confidential, that only a handful of the top execs at my company have seen. I can even provide actual products and packaging of certain products, that no eye has seen, outside of maybe five top execs.”
Pepsi executives immediately reported the encounter and Coca-Cola enlisted the help of the FBI. The FBI in turn arranged an undercover meeting with the thieves. On June 16, the two parties met and the thieves were given a yellow Girl Scout cookie box containing $30,000 in exchange for the sample and a series of internal documents.
The group, Joya Williams, Ibraham Dimson and Edmund Duhaney, were arrested shortly thereafter and charged with wire fraud and unlawfully stealing and selling Coke trade secrets.
Information power is inherently transitory; you only have the power until you give it away. And this is why some governments want to control the pipelines of information. President Obama claims the US owns the internet. That’s a strong assertion, and one that begs some careful consideration before the self-proclaimed “owners” attempt to make changes to how the rest of the world uses and accesses it.
Because that is at the heart of information power: he who has the information has the power.
The President of the United States exercises his position through a balance of these six bases. Over the next year, we’ll watch America choose its next president who will promise to use his or her power to fix the neighbourhood.
Next week on the N of Us, I’ll be talking about one dominant theory of how this can be done.
This has been the N of Us with me, Aleks Krotoski. Voice and editorial support is provided by Ben Hammersley, and research by Hannah Whittingham. You can find out more about the five bases and find out more about the political subtext of the Eurovision Song Contest at thenofus.com