Does Breaking Rules Make You Appear Powerful? ⇢
Jessica Stillman writes about recent research by Gerban van Kleef and colleagues from two Amsterdam universities, that suggests that rule breakers are perceived as more ‘powerful’ than rule followers:
Their series of four studies appears in Social Psychological and Personality Science and was recently written up on the British Psychological Society’s Occupational Digest blog. To test their hypothesis, the researchers presented study participants with two written scenarios, one narrating the coffee snatching behavior described in the first paragraph and another telling the tale of a bookkeeper who brushes aside a trainee’s concerns about an anomaly in a financial report. The participants then decided how well various adjectives described the rules breakers, while a control group was asked to rate a similar scenario with a more polite protagonist. Unsurprisingly, rule breakers were seen as ruder, but they were also definitely rated as more powerful.
Maybe we just find rule breakers powerful on the page, you might object, so the researchers also tested our reaction to renegades captured on video. They came to the same conclusion — viewers didn’t like the guy in the video ashing on the floor or putting his feet up on a chair, but they did see him as more powerful than when he behaved politely.
The conclusion: powerful people break more rules and rule breakers are seen as more powerful, which suggests a nasty feedback loop, according to the researchers:
Because 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… 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.
The backdraft of the Dominique Strauss-Kahn hoohah has all the moralists droning on about the misadventures of the powerful, and how they break the social sexual norms.
I have to say I am more interested in the small-r rule breaking here: a manager deciding to use some web software product to coordinate with his project team instead of waiting for the IT staff to conduct a 3 month investigation. Or the time a friend of mine found an American Airlines VIP card in the airport, and used it so that we could spend a layover in their lounge (and then left it with the receptionist).
Some rules are begging to be broken, at least to the sorts inclined to intolerance of petty, inhibitory dicta. And I admit that I respect people who can’t put up with chickenshit, and that translates to a sort of social power that redounds to those that cut corners and pay the maître d’ $50 to get a table ahead of all the folks waiting in the bar.
But I am uncertain if these examples prove that breaking petty rules are some sort of gateway drug, and that they inevitably lead to our society’s propensity for rape, fraud, or misuse of authority. My hunch is that sociopathic behavior is unrelated to this small-r rule breaking, but this research doesn’t dig into that supposed association, aside from the parting pot shot of the researchers about small-r rule breakage fueling a vicious cycle that culminates in violence or sexual misbehavior.