The cognitive impact of coercive power
Whereas French and Raven referred to power that comes from the threat of force or punishment as coercive power, they referred to power that comes from one’s formal right to issue directions and commands as legitimate power.2 The execution of both these bases of power by an authority figure can ensure cooperation in dilemmas surrounding public good and can prohibit free-riding in an organization, but do they stimulate the same cognitions?12
The slippery slope framework posits that while both coercive and legitimate power stimulate similar behavior, their underlying cognitions differ.12 According to the framework, the cognitions impacted by either base of power include trust in authorities (either implicit or reason-based trust), the relational base (whether it is an antagonistic or service climate), and motives for contribution (enforced compliance versus voluntary cooperation). Specifically, coercive power diminishes implicit trust, induces an antagonistic climate between authority figures and others, and leads to enforced compliance.
In 2017, a team of researchers set out to better understand the underlying cognitions for increased cooperation as a result of coercive and legitimate power.12 The researchers conducted four experiments to study cognitive differences induced by extremely high or low levels of both coercive and legitimate power. The experiments were set in the context of social dilemmas, concerning tax or insurance interactions.
All four experiments confirmed that coercive power applied exclusively decreases implicit trust, increases the perception of an antagonistic climate, and enforces compliance, in accordance with the slippery slope framework. However, when both coercive and legitimate power tactics were used, coercive power didn’t impact participants’ trust in the authority figures, but still led to the perception of an antagonistic climate and an enforced motive to comply.
The researchers suggested that the ability to maintain implicit trust could stem from legitimate power simulating rational consideration of an authority’s power due to their social position.12 While the combination of coercive power and legitimate power still resulted in perceptions of an antagonistic climate, they were perceived to a lesser degree than when coercive power was used alone. These findings suggest that it may be valuable for authority figures to combine coercive and legitimate power tactics, if they feel that coercive power is necessary.
Giving power to the powerless
French and Raven explored bases of social power,2 but what happens when you give power to someone who was previously powerless? Researchers suggest that when people are given the chance to exert power, they believe that all actions are possible, and can prioritize the use of force.13 In fact, Raven previously suggested that the successful use of coercive power might enhance one’s self-esteem. The literature suggests using coercive power might not only liberate those who have been powerless, but might also elevate their sense of worth.
But what exactly does it mean to be powerless? One psychological perspective characterizes the locus of control construct as a continuum of powerlessness. Those with an internal locus of control believe they control the outcomes of their experiences, while those with an external locus of control believe that their lives are governed by external forces like luck or fate.13 Those with an external locus of control view themselves to be powerless relative to those with an internal locus of control.
American researchers Barry Goodstadt and Larry Hjelle conducted an experiment on forty university students to investigate the relationship between locus of control and power.13 The students were asked to supervise three “workers” in a simulation and were told that satisfactory performance as a supervisor had previously been indicative of real-life supervisory success. Satisfactory performance was defined as maintaining the production level of the workers at or above a specified standard.
Goodstadt and Hjelle found that the university students with an external locus of control were less likely than those with an internal locus of control to rely on personal persuasion tactics and significantly more likely to use coercive power (i.e. threatening to fire someone), when dealing with a resistant worker.13 Students with an internal locus of control relied more on informational power than those with an external locus of control. Based on the persuasive and power tactics used, participants with an internal locus of control were more persuasive than those with an external locus of control (the “psychologically powerless”).13
These findings suggest there can be negative consequences when “psychologically powerless” people acquire positions of power.13 People with an external locus of control can use coercive power to influence social institutions and government, potentially resulting in dangerous retaliation. Influential organizations should be cognizant of the use of coercion, to ensure that it isn’t abused (i.e. implementing action policies).