How to Feel—and Appear—More Powerful
A new study explains the link between authenticity and power.
Posted June 14, 2018
Is power associated with acting as the situation demands, or acting as one truly desires?
Based on a series of five studies, the results of which appear in a paper currently in press, Gan and colleagues concluded that power is associated not with acting based on situational demands, but with authenticity.
Authenticity refers to being true to one’s values, emotions, attitudes, etc. Acting authentically means to act based on one’s feelings, core values, personal views, and so forth, and not based on what others expect or what the situation requires.
In their first study on authenticity and power, Gan and colleagues asked the participants to visualize themselves behaving authentically/inauthentically. They found that when participants imagined themselves behaving authentically, they felt more empowered.
In the second study, the participants were asked to recall a situation in which they felt authentic (or inauthentic); they were then asked to report how powerful they felt. Recalling situations in which they felt more authentic (as opposed to inauthentic) resulted in more subjective sense of power.
In the next investigation, the researchers tried to determine whether authenticity increases power or whether inauthenticity reduces it. The results showed that authenticity enhances power but inauthenticity does not reduce it.
In the fourth study, the authors analyzed the validity of a competing account; this alternative view had suggested that being authentic can produce positive feelings, and it is the positive feelings that are responsible for the increased feelings of power.
The findings, however, ruled out positive feelings as the explanation for the link between authenticity and enhanced power.
The last study concerned the hypothesis that when people are authentic, they not only communicate to themselves that they are powerful but that they also communicate that to others. And just as expected, the data showed the hypothesis to be true. Once again, this relation was not related to positive affect. In other words, the reason that these people were judged as more powerful was not related to them being seen as experiencing more positive feelings.
It must be noted that the researchers also ruled out the possibility that the link between authenticity and power was related to preexisting differences in power. That is to say, it was not only the originally more powerful people who felt more empowered as a result of being authentic. Others did too.
Overall, these investigations appear to show that authenticity signals power both in the eyes of the person herself but also in the eyes of others.
So why is acting authentically related to power? Perhaps because more powerful people feel more self-sufficient, and are more free to pursue their own goals and interests, and in short, be true to who they are.
The powerless, on the other hand, are more likely to have an external locus of control; they feel constantly influenced and even controlled by external forces; they feel that they have very limited control over the outcomes in their own lives.
So what does the link between authenticity and power imply for how we can live our lives? As Gan and colleagues have shown, acting more authentically appears to help us feel a greater sense of power—subjectively, that is. But in their last study, they also showed that authenticity also signals our power to other people. So authenticity results in both increased subjective and objective power.
The good news is that the ability to act authentically is available to everyone, including to people who are low in power (whether due to their personality or their place in the social hierarchy). This means that anyone can feel more powerful and be seen as more powerful, if he only tries harder (or tries more consistently) to be true to who he is deep inside.
Gan, M., Heller, D., & Chen, S. (in press). The power in being yourself: Feeling authentic enhances the sense of power. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin. Doi: 10.1177/0146167218771000