In the 1970s, feminist theorists began to put forward what was then a controversial claim: that sexual aggression is essentially about power. This idea was important enough to launch experimental research, much of which has supported the claim – for instance, priming some men with a sense of power leads them to say they would be more prepared to coerce sex, and encourages men and women alike to believe a subordinate desired them sexually. However other research has suggested the opposite: that aggression is more likely when perpetrators feel less powerful, including in domestic violence and specifically sexual aggression contexts.
To make sense of these seemingly contradictory findings, researchers from Emory and Stanford universities have looked at power more carefully. Their work, published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, suggests that a person’s experience of power in the past and their power right now in the current situation are distinct factors, and how they combine is key.
Melissa Williams and her colleagues first asked 372 participants (average age 33) to recall a time when they felt especially in control. They categorized those participants who couldn’t think of any such instance – around 10 per cent of the sample – as having low chronic power.
Next the researchers gave all the participants a hypothetical scenario to consider in which they are working alongside an attractive individual who is single but hasn’t shown any explicit interest in them. Half the participants were further asked to imagine that they supervised this co-worker, giving them high acute power over this person. Finally, participants said how willing they would be to carry out a range of inappropriate behaviours towards their colleague, including giving an unsolicited shoulder massage, or holding all meetings with them in a private office, rather than in a public space.
Who was most likely to engage in such creepiness?
The researchers predicted that as powerlessness is accompanied by shame and frustration, individuals who feel that way are strongly motivated to correct this shortfall by any means, and will be the most likely to exploit whatever power opportunities they can lay their hands on. And this is what the data showed: chronically low-powered participants expressed a greater willingness to endorse creepy behaviours, and even more so when they were in the supervisory role, a rare (for them) power situation. The historically powerless participants also stated a greater willingness to obstruct opportunities for the subordinate to move to a better position on another team, such as by delaying a letter of recommendation.
Another experiment showed that chronically low-power individuals placed in a position of power were also more willing to leverage this power in classic (hypothetical) harassment scenarios, like offering a job in return for sexual behaviours. Across both these first two experiments, men were significantly more likely to intend to harass, but low chronic power increased these exploitative tendencies to the same degree in both men and women.
A final experiment with 195 men recruited online involved observing actual harassment behaviours in real-time, using a live-chat setup. The cover story for this experiment was that the researchers were examining people’s memory for text messages. To this end, the participants’ task was to “live text” with a remote partner who they believed to be another participant but was in fact a member of the research team. Crucially this partner was represented onscreen as an attractive female avatar. A further detail was that the researchers told some of the participants that they had a supervisory role, meaning they would solely be in charge of sending the key messages, rather than also taking a stint as a recipient.
The texting exercise involved participants choosing which of three pre-composed messages to send, waiting for a response from their partner, and then sending another message from a fresh set of options. On each trial, one of the three messages was unwelcome and creepy, such as “what’s a nice girl like you doing in a dirty mind like mine?”, and whenever a participant chose this option, their partner would call this out as a weird thing to send as part of a memory exercise, leaving participants in no doubt that their choice of message had an effect on a living person.
Chronically low-power individuals sent an average of 2.5 harassing messages (out of a maximum of 16) – unless they’d been allocated to the supervisor role, in which case they sent just over 4, on average. In contrast, chronically high-powered individuals actually became less likely to send harassing messages when in the supervisor role, which suggests they were approaching the task more sensitively in the context of a formal power imbalance.
Taken altogether the findings show how people with a history of powerlessness seem particularly tempted to abuse any temporary power they are given over another person. But as the researchers suggested, it’s unwise to go too far and conclude that inappropriate behaviour is only rooted in powerlessness. In some contexts power can also foster aggression “perhaps when … combined with a sense of entitlement, moral superiority, or incompetence”. In that vein, we should note that in the last experiment, even though chronically high-power participants were less likely to harass in the supervisor role, their baseline harassment level without that role was actually higher than the worst excesses of their low-powered counterparts.
Nonetheless, we need to better understand the sometimes toxic cocktail of sudden, situational power for people unaccustomed to it. One of the final analyses in the new research suggested that inappropriate behaviour in this context may be driven by low trust in people and a general sense of a Machiavellian world: that “everyone else screws people over, so why shouldn’t I?” The article closes by quoting the Isla Vista killer, Elliot Rodger, a poster boy for the embittered, powerless person, perceiving the world as stacked against him, taking up one of the purest forms of temporary, situational power – a gun and the willingness to kill:
After I picked up the handgun, I brought it back to my room and felt a new sense of power. I was now armed. Who’s the alpha male now, bitches? I thought to myself, regarding all of the girls who’ve looked down on me in the past.