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Power and Emotion

Four kinds of power in interpersonal relations rely on emotional effects.

Many interpersonal relations are based on power, but the dependence of power on emotions is largely unrecognized. There are at least four kinds of power that result from emotional interactions.

The most obvious kind of power is coercive, where people are able to use threats to get others to perform actions that they would not do without external control. For example, a political dictator can control people’s actions by threats such as imprisonment, torture, and death. The primary emotion in coercive power is fear: people do what others want because they fear that the consequences of non-compliance will be physically or emotionally painful.

The second main kind, benefit power, relies on potential gains that people can provide to others, without intimidation. Some of the power of a political leader, for example, comes not from threats but from the capability of the leader to provide others with financial and other rewards. Two people depend on each other when the actions of one changes the behavior of others. Couples can provide many benefits to each other, ranging from emotional support to financial contributions to sex. The main emotion in benefit power is desire: the subject of power has desires that the controller can satisfy by providing security, prosperity, or power over others.

Coercive and benefit power both require the recipient to infer the consequences of compliance, but there are two other kinds of power where behaviors can operate by more implicit mechanisms. Some leaders are so charismatic that they are able to get followers to do what they want without threats or rewards, because their followers respect them. The main emotions that fuel respect power are liking, admiration, and trust. When people feel deep admiration for a leader, they are inclined to do what the leader wants, independent of consequences based on fear and desire. Of course, respected leaders can also supplement their power by threats and offering benefits. But for respect power to operate there need be no explicit communication of potential of costs and rewards, only the often subtle and nonverbal communications that generates the emotions of liking, admiration, trust, and respect.

The final kind of power is even more subtle, because it can permeate whole societies with little awareness of its operation. I call it norm power, because social norms make their subjects acquiesce to the plans and goals of an individual or group through agreements that seem to them voluntary, without coercion, benefits, or a respected leader. Rather, voluntary compliance operates by social norms that have spread through a society so thoroughly that people may be subject to the control of others while believing that they are choosing the role assigned to them

A good example is the position of women in patriarchal societies, where many women feel they are voluntarily choosing roles that subordinate them to men. They have so thoroughly absorbed the social norms governing the appropriate behaviors of women and men that they go along with them without conscious awareness of whether the results are good or bad for them. One of the contributions of the waves of the women’s movement, from early suffragettes to women’s liberation of the 1960s to third-wave feminists of the 1980s, is increasing awareness of the subtlety and alterability of social norms that restrict women’s activities.

The emotions associated with norm power are complex. Voluntary compliance in accord with social norms has an emotional dimension because the norms may have emotions built into them, for example when women are expected to be modest. Moreover, people may have emotions based on the value and consequences of the social norms. Following a social norm can make people feel proud and self-satisfied, whereas violations can lead to negative emotions such as guilt, shame, and self-loathing. At full emotional complexity, social roles can operate via nested emotions such as fear of embarrassment and pride of obedience. People absorb the values that are central to an ideology, for example Sharia law in fundamentalist Islam, and comply with it because any other way of doing things is emotionally intolerable.

When social norms serve the interests and needs of members of society, for example by encouraging civilized behaviors such as kindness and courtesy, then norm power is beneficial. But voluntary compliance based on social norms can also be used to maintain pernicious forms of power such as sexual domination, economic exploitation, and prolonged servitude.

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