We certainly have a wealth of anecdotes about what having power does to people: Power has led political figures like Herman Cain (allegedly) and John Edwards to engage in adultery, facilitated unethical financial practices on Wall Street, and contributed to some of the most overconfident moments in our nation'sAmerican history. On the one hand, we could conclude from these examples that power leads people to immoral, unethical, and deviant behavior, and some research is suggestive of this possibility.
Of course, power can't always be bad for us, like it was for the American economy or Edwards' political career. Certainly, sometimes power can have a positive effect on our well-being, by allowing us the freedom to be ourselves.
Recent (2011) research conducted at UC Berkeley by psychology professors Serena Chen and Dacher Keltner (and me!) suggests exactly this: Power allows you to be you! More specifically, because power involves the control and freedom to administer rewards and punishments for others, power has the capacity to allow people to be consistent across all situations and contexts. In essence, having power means that a person doesn't have to engage in strategic self-presentation, to appear like someone whom they are not.
In the first study testing this prediction, participants filled out a measure of personality that assesses a person's dispositional sense of power. That is, your tendency to agree with statements like, "people tend to listen to what I have to say," or "I feel that I have a great deal of power," with respect to your relationships in general. After filling out this measure, participants completed the 20 statements test, an open-ended writing task where people fill out 20 statements about themselves. People who scored high on the dispositional sense of power tended to consistently write statements like "I am extraverted," "I am outgoing," and "I like to be social." In contrast, people scoring lower in power tended to show less consistency in their self-statements.
In a second study, participants filled out the same dispositional sense of power scale and then were asked to describe themselves as if they were making an online profile for two different online social-networking websites—Eharmony for dating; Facebook, for meeting new friends and networking. High power participants once again tended to be more consistent across these websites in their self-descriptions. In contrast, low power participants tended to shift how they presented themselves on the two websites.
Finally, we expected that the elevated self-concept consistency that power allows also has implications for feelings of authenticity, one marker of enhanced psychological well-being. To test this final prediction, we used a written task where people wrote about a time they had high power, low power, or neutral power (waking up in the morning). Participants then rated their personality in three unique contexts: at home, with family, and at work/school. Finally, participants rated their feelings of authenticity in general—that is, the extent to which one is able to express one's true attitudes and feelings around others. Not surprisingly, high power participants were more consistent in their self-ratings across the three contexts and also tended to report elevated feelings of authenticity, relative to their low power counterparts.
There you have it! Power does have an important positive consequence for people: When people have power they don't feel the need to shift how they present themselves in different situations or contexts. In one way this is a good thing, because it helps a person feel and behave more authentically in all different situations. In contrast, lacking power means one has to be strategic in the way one presents the self, changing from context-to-context. While self-presentation concerns are probably adaptive in some situations, it is easy to see how changing one's self all the time can contribute to negative feelings like "I can't be my true self." or "People don't really know me."
There are, of course, some interesting boundary conditions to this research, and I'd love to hear more of your thoughts, Psychology Today readers!
Kraus, M., Chen, S., & Keltner, D. (2011). The power to be me: Power elevates self-concept consistency and authenticity Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 47 (5), 974-980 DOI: 10.1016/j.jesp.2011.03.017
*A previous version of this article appeared on Psych Your Mind!