Wisdom//

You Have Control over Your Power, According to a Social Psychologist

Use this to your advantage.

Courtesy of  Billy Huynh/Unsplash

There are two kinds of power I’d like to discuss — social power and personal power. They’re related. But they’re also dramatically different. Social power is characterized by the ability to exert dominance, to influence or control the behavior of others. 

Social power is earned and expressed through disproportionate control over valued resources. A person who possesses access to assets that others need — food, shelter, money, tools, information, status, attention, affection — is in a powerful position. The list of things this type of power can gain is endless, but social power itself is a limited resource. The constant is that it requires some kind of control over others. 

Personal power is characterized by freedom from the dominance of others. It is infinite, as opposed to zero- sum — it’s about access to and control of limitless inner resources, such as our skills and abilities, our deeply held values, our true personalities, our boldest selves. Personal power — not entirely unlike social power, as I’ll explain — makes us more open, optimistic, and risk tolerant and therefore more likely to notice and take advantage of opportunities. 

In short, social power is power over — the capacity to control others’ states and behaviors. Personal power is power to — the ability to control our own states and behaviors. This is the kind of power Holocaust survivor and Nobel Peace Prize winner Elie Wiesel was referring to when he wrote, “Ultimately, the only power to which man should aspire is that which he exercises over himself.” 

Ideally, we want both kinds of power, but, as Wiesel suggests, personal power — the state of being in command of our most precious and authentic inner resources — is uniquely essential. Unless and until we feel personally powerful, we cannot achieve presence, and all the social power in the world won’t compensate for its absence. 

Recall a moment when you felt personally powerful. A time when you felt fully in control of your own psychological state — when you had the confidence to act based on your boldest, most sincere self, with the sense that your actions would be effective. Maybe it was at work, at school, at home, or in some other part of your life. Take a few minutes right now to remember and reflect on that experience of your personal power, on how it felt. 

It felt good, right? Whether you know it or not, you’ve just been primed. Thanks to that little exercise, your psychological state was, and likely still is, infused with feelings of confidence and strength. I could just as easily have asked you to remember a time when you felt powerless and stress- ridden, but of course I don’t want to bring you down. Had you done that, however, it, too, would have changed your psychological state, at least temporarily — for the worse. That unhappy sensation of being at someone else’s mercy would have come flooding back into the hidden recesses of your brain. 

This is one of the ways that social psychologists conduct research into power: by using various devices and exercises to make subjects feel powerful or powerless. Then, once the participants have been primed, the study itself can be carried out, and in this way we can see the differences between the ways powerful and powerless people respond. 

 It may sound like a cheap parlor trick, but it works — a little thought exercise, such as remembering a powerful or powerless moment, briefly seeing words that connote power (control, command, authority ) or the lack of it (obey, yield, subordinate ), or being assigned the temporary role of boss or employee, can make a measurable difference in our mental and emotional states. Even these gentle prompts can induce genuine nonconscious feelings. 

It illustrates something important: that the feeling of power or its absence can be summoned forth even by little nudges in one direction or another. We are easy beings to manipulate. That leaves us vulnerable, yes, but it can also work to our advantage, especially when we learn how to nudge ourselves. 

Excerpted from PRESENCE Copyright © 2018 by Amy Cuddy.
Used with permission of Little, Brown and Company, New York. All rights reserved.

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