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Power, Status, and Perspective-Taking

Power and status affect perspective-taking in different ways.

NeetiR via Wikimedia Commons
Source: NeetiR via Wikimedia Commons

In many social interactions, it is valuable to be able to take someone else’s perspective. If you are going to teach something to someone else, you need to understand what they know before presenting new information. Evaluating people at work requires looking both at what they have accomplished, but also how circumstances have affected their ability to succeed.

Some research has explored the role of power in perspective-taking. In most social structures, some people have more power than others. For example, as the faculty member in charge of my research lab, I have more control over allocation of resources than do the graduate students and undergraduates who work in the lab. Research suggests that people with a high level of social power are less likely to take another person’s perspective than people with a low level of social power.

A paper by Steven Blader, Aiwa Shirako, and Ya-Ru Chen in the June, 2016 issue of Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin suggests that the relationship between power and perspective-taking may be difficult to study, because power and status often vary together. They suggest that status and power have different effects on perspective-taking. In particular, while high power may decrease people’s tendency to take another person’s perspective, high status may actually increase people’s tendency to take another person’s perspective.

Status reflects whether other people hold you in high esteem. People with high status are admired by others. In order to maintain your status in a social group, it is important to pay attention to what other people think and do. As a result, people who have high status are likely to be attuned to the people around them.

These researchers explored the influence of power and status on perspective-taking in a series of studies. In one study, they had pairs of participants engage in a negotiation using an exercise in which one person played the role of a potential buyer of a gas station, while the other person played the role of the seller. The buyer came from a big company. In that person’s description of the negotiation, they were either told they had a lot of power (controlling a lot of resources and accounts in the company) or that they had a lot of status (other people respected the quite a bit). The seller was told nothing about the buyer. After the negotiation, the seller was asked to rate how much the buyer took their perspective during the negotiation. When they buyer was told they had high status, they were rated as taking the other person’s perspective more often than when the buyer was told they had high power.

Another series of studies manipulated power or status by asking people to remember situations in which they had high power, high status, or a control condition in which they remembered something unrelated to power or status. Then, they did a task that required perspective-taking.

One study looked at comprehension of sarcasm. In this study, participants were told they asked for advice about a restaurant. The restaurant turned out to be horrible. They wrote a note to the person from whom they got the recommendation saying, “Thanks, I don’t know what we would have done without you.” Participants rated whether the statement was sincere or sarcastic. In order to recognize that the statement was sarcastic, a participant has to take the perspective of the person who just had a horrible meal. Participants in the high status condition were more likely to recognize the sarcasm than those in the high power condition. The control condition came out in between.

Another study looked at spatial perspective-taking. Participants looked at a picture of a person sitting at a table facing the camera with a book next to them. They had to describe the location of the book. They key measure was whether they described the location of the book from the viewer’s perspective or the sitter’s perspective. Participants in the high status condition were more likely to take the sitter’s perspective than those in the high power condition. The control condition came out in between these two conditions.

A third study looked at the ability to correctly detect emotions from facial expressions. Detecting emotion requires thinking about someone else’s feelings. Participants saw 24 pictures of faces displaying emotion and identified the emotion. Participants in the high status condition were correct more often than those in the high power condition (with the control condition in between).

This set of studies makes clear that status and power have different influences on people’s behavior. Raw power makes people less sensitive to the wants and needs of others. Presumably, power focuses people on the resources they control rather than the people around them. In contrast, status increases people’s focus on others. Status is based on other people’s opinions. As a result, maintaining status requires paying attention to other people.

For those people who attain some power, it is important to find ways to continue to see the world from other people’s perspectives. This skill helps people to engage in social interactions more effectively and to solve problems in groups. Focusing on status rather than power may be a way to help people to increase their tendency to engage in more perspective-taking.

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