People who break the rules are seen as more powerful.
Things as simple as putting your feet on the table, throwing down your bag and arriving late all give others the impression that you are more powerful, research finds.
Other ways to seem more powerful are described by the study’s authors:
“…people associate power with less smiling, more gazing, more other-touching, more gesturing, more interruptions, and a louder voice.
Because certain behaviors are believed to be associated with power, the cues themselves may signal power.
Thus, when people perceive others around them, they may use such cues to infer their level of power.
For the study people were told about others who had broken relatively small rules, such as taking a cup of coffee without asking and bending accounting rules.
The results showed that rule-breakers were seen as more in-control and powerful compared with those who avoided these small infractions.
The authors write:
“…power leads to behavioral disinhibition, the powerful are more likely to violate norms.
Doing so in turn leads other people to perceive them as powerful, as we have demonstrated.
As individuals thus gain power, their behavior becomes even more liberated, possibly leading to more norm violations, and thus evoking a self-reinforcing process.
This vicious cycle of norm violations and power affordance may play a role in the emergence and perpetuation of a multitude of undesirable social and organizational behaviors such as fraud, sexual harassment, and violence.”
Of course, there is more to appearing powerful than just breaking rules, the authors write:
“We suspect that whether and how long people get away with norm violations depends on whether they have the competencies and affordances that warrant power[…]
A person who breaks norms repeatedly but fails to do what it takes to maintain power may ultimately fall from grace.”
The study was published in the journal Social Psychological and Personality Science (Van Kleef et al., 2011).
About the author
Psychologist, Jeremy Dean, PhD is the founder and author of PsyBlog. He holds a doctorate in psychology from University College London and two other advanced degrees in psychology.
He has been writing about scientific research on PsyBlog since 2004. He is also the author of the book “Making Habits, Breaking Habits” (Da Capo, 2003) and several ebooks:
- Accept Yourself: How to feel a profound sense of warmth and self-compassion
- The Anxiety Plan: 42 Strategies For Worry, Phobias, OCD and Panic
- Spark: 17 Steps That Will Boost Your Motivation For Anything
- Activate: How To Find Joy Again By Changing What You Do
Powerful person image from Shutterstock