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Power and Inaction

Achieve more by doing less. Caveats apply.

Key points

  • Doing nothing can be wise and signal power.
  • Scarcity and perceived value are related. When certain people are “in demand,” others assume they are powerful.
  • Nonreactivity is not a dominating strategy. It can fail.

Ich lieb dich nur ein bißchen aber nicht zuviel [I’ll love you just a little but not too much].—U. Lindenberg, Westphalian poet and existentialist

Power, and interpersonal or social power in particular, is ordinarily associated with action, even aggression. Powerful people, or people temporarily psyched into a mental state of power, seek action. They are more interested in approaching potential sources of reward than in avoiding potential sources of harm (Keltner et al., 2003). Power implies control and the will and the ability to get things done, or better yet, to get other people to do these things. At that point, power drifts from action to non-action. The powerful can sit back and enjoy the view of others working.

The concept of power is not exhausted by its bullying and exploitative variant. Power can also be expressed by the lack of action at the outset, a nonreactivity or (non-)response to stimulation, challenge, or demand. The prototype of this variant is the ability to stay calm in the face of threat or provocation. Imagine the frustration of a bully who is spoiling for a fight when the designated victim remains stoical and unimpressed. Whereas it is not impossible that the bully strikes first anyway, the stoical victim emerges more powerful if the bully gambles on being able to provoke the victim to throw the first punch, and fails.

Nonreactivity is the broader concept comprising such unresponsiveness. To be nonreactive is to uncouple one’s own actions from the stimuli (say, provocations) controlled by others. If others control the stimuli and the stimuli control your actions, these others control you. If they fail in this, the power is yours. It’s a negative type of power; it is the freedom from being controlled by others as opposed to the ability to control others.

While it seems clear that nonreactivity can contribute to one’s sense of freedom and autonomy, it is less clear whether nonreactivity can contribute to one’s assertive power. Can nonreactivity help you get what you want besides gratifying the desire to be left alone?

A Google scholar search with the keywords "nonreactivity" and "power" yields little. Yet, we can follow some leads and connect some dots. Let’s consider four points: wu wei, operant conditioning, the scarcity principle, and the game of chicken.

1. Wu wei

Wu wei is the ancient Chinese concept of inaction or inexertion. It is associated with both Taoism and Confucianism but appears to have originated in the former. In Confucianism, wu wei is reminiscent of the Western idea of laissez-faire, which counsels non-intervention. Nature (or the market) will find a state of harmony (equilibrium) if we do not mess with it. In Taoism, wu wei may offer a degree of serenity and it may be an expression of wisdom; it does not, however, amount to power over others. A sage following the principle of wu wei, we may infer, would not even want that. Yet, a soft lesson that can be learned from wu wei and be applied in the modern organizational context is the value of non-interference. Most workers resent being micro-managed, and too few managers realize that a soft-touch approach not only yields better results but also requires less effort on their part (Krueger, 2013).

2. Operant conditioning

Operant conditioning increases the probability of a behavior occurring with the use of reinforcements, or it reduces that probability with punishments. A trainer has power over the trainee, be it an animal or a human. This power increases when nonreactivity is introduced. Once a behavior has come under the control of a reinforcer, reinforcement can be withheld and delivered at variable and ever longer intervals. Eventually, the trainee is hooked on the trainer’s diminishing generosity or reactivity. Humans work for praise like dogs work for treats, and they continue to work as praise becomes rare. Many sexual relationships show this pattern of diminishing rewards coupled with stubborn commitments, though it is often not clear who comes to enjoy greater power, if anyone (Baumeister et al., 2019).

3. The scarcity principle

The scarcity principle refers to a perceptual regularity in judgment. When reinforcements diminish, they become by definition scarce, and scarcity signals value (Pleskac & Hertwig, 2014). As nonreactivity implies a scarcity of response, rare actions will, ceteris paribus, come to be seen as more valuable. When certain people are “in demand,” we assume they are powerful; booking them to give a talk or getting their attention at the dinner table will be difficult. A correlation such as this tempts eager spirits to exploit it. In sales, this works to a degree. Just claiming that an item is part of a "limited edition" or that the "sale will end Sunday" is often enough to boost consumer interest (Cialdini, 2001).

Should this not work in the romantic marketplace (see epigraph)? Early research suggested that "playing hard to get" is a viable strategy to generate suitor interest. A recent review, however, cautions against rash conclusions (Houle et al., 2022). The effect appears to be real, but the moderating conditions that must be satisfied for it to work are more intriguing to the academic wonk than to the bottom-line motivated date seeker. It is evident how this strategy is self-defeating at the limit. When scarcity reaches the vanishing point, no effort to find the person or obtain the product seems justified. Interesting exceptions are those who already are famous and powerful and then make themselves scarce. J. D. Salinger and Hermann Hesse, for example, added to their mystique when retreating to the woods of New Hampshire and the Ticino, respectively.

4. The game of chicken

The game of chicken strikingly illustrates the two edges of nonreactivity. This game models brinkmanship. He (or she or they) who blinks first is the chicken. The stoic with nerves of steel wins, but when two stoics face off the outcome is catastrophic (Rapoport & Chammah, 1966). The iconic scene illustrating the game shows Jimmy (James Dean) in a drag race with Buzz (Corey Allen). Jimmy, it must be remembered, was the chicken as he jumped out of his car. Buzz died in a crash because his sleeve got tangled with the door opener. Nonreactivity can be useful as long as it is controlled.


Baumeister, R. F., Maxwell, J. A., Thomas, G. P., & Vohs, K. D. (2019). The mask of love and sexual gullibility. In J. P. Forgas & R. F. Baumeister (eds.). The social psychology of gullibility. Routledge.

Cialdini, R. B., (2001). The science of persuasion. Scientific American, 284(2), 76-81.

Houle, L., Barker, E., & Pronin, E. (2022): Playing hard-to-get: A new look at an old strategy, The Journal of Sex Research, DOI: 10.1080/00224499.2022.2070117

Keltner, D., Gruenfeld, D. H., & Anderson, C. (2003). Power, approach, and inhibition. Psychological Review, 110(2), 265–284.

Krueger, J. I. (2013). The new Tao of leadership. Review of ‘Do nothing! How to stop overmanaging and become a great leader’ by J. K. Murnighan. Journal of Economic Psychology, 35, 108-109.

Pleskac, T. J., & Hertwig, R. (2014). Ecologically rational choice and the structure of the environment. Journal of Experimental Psychology: General, 143(5), 2000–2019.

Rapoport, A., & Chammah, A. M. (1966). The game of chicken. American Behavioral Scientist, 10(3), 10–28.

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