Informational Power

The Basic Idea

How did the game of “Truth or Dare” become a classic go-to party game? The game simply asks the participant to choose between truthfully answering a question or following a command which typically requires them to carry out an embarrassing action. 

A significant portion of appeal associated with the game is witnessing the lengths to which a person may go to avoid answering a question truthfully.Though the game is generally played in good fun, it underlines an important concept of the value of information. Having informational power provides access to information that gives you the ability to influence or evoke a certain behavior within another individual. 

The use of informational power is not limited to sinister causes such as threatening to share a friend’s embarrassing story, rather, it is the use of any sort of information or knowledge to influence a desired behavior within a person of interest.1

Knowledge is power. Information is power. The secreting or hoarding of knowledge or information may be an act of tyranny camouflaged as humility.

– Robin Morgan, American poet

Key Terms

Social power: The ability to influence and cause changes in an individual’s cognitive, emotional, and behavioral attitudes through social interactions. 

Influencing agent: An individual that possesses and exercises any of the six bases of social power to influence and change a target’s behavior. 

Target: An individual that is subject to social power exerted by an influencing agent. 

History

In 1959, social psychologists John French and Bertram Raven published a seminal paper on social power, titled The bases of social power.2 French and Raven initially proposed five bases of social power in an attempt to dissect how individuals, organizations, and governments use power to influence a change in behavior and attitudes within others. 

The original five social powers include:2 

  1. Reward Power: When an agent uses rewards to influence compliance and a desired behavior within the target. For example, a firm can promise increased bonuses for a job well done. 
  2. Coercive Power: When an agent uses punishments and threats to influence a desired behavior within the target. Coercive power is dependent on successfully evoking a sufficient degree of fear within the target to alter their behavior in order to avoid a potential punishment. For example, a supervisor may threaten with a poor performance review or being taken off of an important case. 
  3. Legitimate Power: When an agent is an authoritative figure and is perceived to have a formal right to make demands and give out directions to others. This is a common power found within the military ranking system. 
  4. Referent Power: When an agent is perceived to be charismatic, trustworthy, and admirable, which allows them to influence the behavior of a target group or individual. This is widely seen with celebrities, spiritual leaders, and successful entrepreneurs. 
  5. Expert Power: When an agent is deemed trustworthy because they are perceived to be an expert within a certain field, allowing them to influence individuals in matters concerning that field. For example, a chemistry student would rarely ever consider challenging claims by their professor that holds a PhD in chemistry. 

Six years after proposing the original five bases of social power, in 1965, Raven included an additional social power to the list, informational power.3 This social power is used when an agent is able to influence the behavior of others because of either i) their superior ability to access information, or ii) the possession of certain information which can be leveraged to make a target comply.3 

For the years that followed, these six bases of social power gained recognition and revolutionized the way social power and interactions were understood within organizational behavior. Raven continued to build upon and elaborate the six bases of power and, in 1992, differentiated each of the social powers into subcategories. For informational power, he broke it up in two forms:4

  1. Direct form: An influencing agent directly presents a certain piece of information to the target in order to implement change.  For example, a senior associate (an influencing agent) telling a summer intern (the target) to make certain changes to a report before submitting it. The intern would likely comply with the suggested changes since the associate is presumably well informed as to what a good report looks like.
  2. Indirect form: An influencing agent casually shares an observation or overheard conversations with a target to make them consider a certain approach or option. To explain this form, Raven gave an example of a female nurse working in an intensive care unit. The nurse can act as an influencing agent to a physician if she shares her casual observations of a particular treatment having worked better in the past than the current treatment approach.

    He mentioned that the nurse would be much more effective in changing a physician’s behavior if she used an indirect form of informational power rather than a direct form. The nurse presenting a causal observation would be better welcomed and more likely to be considered by the physician instead of a direct influencing attempt.4

While the other types of social powers are primarily in the sole possession of the “superior” party in an interaction, the breaking up of informational power into direct and indirect forms allows this to be a more dynamic power. While direct informational power is a tool that can be utilized by an influencing agent with a “superior” social role, an individual with a lower social role or position can use the indirect form of informational power to influence a superior. 

People

John R. P. French: A native to Boston, social psychologist John French completed his undergraduate degree at Antioch College and Black Mountain College before pursuing graduate studies at Harvard University in 1937. Completing his widely-cited and renown dissertation on group cohesion during distress, French quickly became a notable figure in the field of social psychology and organizational behavior. Aside from his ground-breaking paper on the bases of social power, French is credited with laying the foundation of incorporating behavioral science in modern management through his classic work which examined how resistance to change influences group decisions.5 

Bertram Raven: Born in Ohio, Raven completed his undergraduate degree in psychology from the Ohio State University and a PhD in social psychology at the University of Michigan. In 1956, he joined UCLA as a faculty member in the department of social psychology where he developed a program in health psychology. He initially became a prominent figure within the field of social psychology through his work with John French on the bases of social power, though he retained relevance with his extensive research on small group dynamics later on in his career.6

Consequences

Examples of informational power are widespread and can be commonly found in the everyday lives of supervisor-subordinate relationships, lawsuits, and sensitive government projects. 

Within the workplace, informational power tends to increase alongside an advancement in managerial positions. Intuitively speaking, a senior manager at an accounting firm would be much more likely to possess both a greater breadth and depth of information than a first year associate.1

There are several factors that may contribute to an increased degree of informational power with a higher position in a company.

First, the experience of working within a particular company for an extended period of time informs an individual of many aspects of both the job and the company as a whole. Ranging from general pieces of information like the nature of a company’s culture to how the company’s remuneration for a particular job compares to the industry-standard, an individual’s informational power increases through experience and mere observations.

Second, depending on the company, individuals holding a senior position within a firm are also likely to have clearance to classified information. Security clearance is typically required for accessing classified government documents,7 but may also be required for accessing a firm’s internal documents. This allows individuals in higher managerial positions to have a greater access to and possession of information that new hires and the general public have no knowledge about. 

In an economy driven by data and analytics, the value of possessing relevant information is second to none. Such information can be in the form of confidential financial reports, internal documents, or classified government operations. The individual with the information finds themselves in a powerful position, which continues to increase along with the demand for the information. 

Individuals with informational power have the ability to withhold, share, manipulate, or distort this information1 to leverage a desired behavior by a target. Though this information can be shared to help other parties and forge connections, it can also be concealed and used as a tool for bargaining power.

Controversies

Since the articulation of informational power, there have been several studies to examine just how effective this social power is in influencing change. Although it is likely for information to have a large impact and influence on one-on-one supervisor-subordinate relationships, the effectiveness seems to vary considerably on a larger interdepartmental and organizational level. 

Though it is true that sharing information can improve coordination and help align objectives in some situations, the target party may react poorly to the influencing agent’s use of information if they feel it’s being used as a bargaining tool.8 In such cases, the attempts of exerting informational power may be unsuccessful and create a hostile environment. 

There are limits to informational power. It’s possible for this power to fail or eventually run out.9 According to American psychologist David Kipnis,10 if an influencing agent is successful in using informational power to force compliance within the target, the agent is likely to escalate to harsher forms of social powers such as coercion through a legitimate position once their informational power diminishes. Kipnis named this escalation the metamorphic effects of power.9, 10

Case Study

Informational power in distribution channels 

The effectiveness of exercising French and Raven’s social powers at a business and organizational level has been extensively studied over the years. The effectiveness associated with informational power has been proven to have a high degree of variance depending on how it is implemented. 

Within a distribution channel, a retailer can act as an influencing agent and use its informational power to demand lower minimum-order quantities from it’s supplier. The retailer can justify this demand by mentioning information such as insights on scanner-generated records, uncompetitive inventory turnover, and higher carrying costs associated with the current minimum-order quantities.11 Though the information may be completely factual and the demand may sound reasonable, Stern and El-Ansary12 argue that the retailer’s exercise of informational power can result in a negative effect on cooperation within the distribution channel. 

Members of distribution channels value independence and a diffused sense of power,11 balance can be threatened by an influencing agent exerting informational power on a channel member. Such attempts of using a direct form of informational power to manipulate or force a member into compliance is not well-received.13

On the contrary, researchers have associated the concept of information exchange with a positive effect on cooperation. As two parties exchange the information they possess, a mutual trust is developed as they both influence each other while maintaining a fairly balanced informational power. This allows corporations to build long-term positive relationships and view each other as partners and allies instead of rivals.14

Related TDL Content

Coercive Power

Have you ever been frightened or threatened by someone into being on your best behavior? In this article, we explored coercive power, one of French and Raven’s six social powers. This power is derived from an agent’s ability to threaten subordinates with punishments to influence compliance. The article examines the cognitive impacts of coercive power on subordinates and includes a case study on the implications of coercive power in organizational management.

Great Man Theory

Can you really learn certain traits and train to become a good leader or are leaders born with inherently superior qualities? Our article on the Great Man Theory explains the idea that all highly influential individuals in history achieved extraordinary lives because of their superior natural attributes and abilities. Find out how this is relevant for organizations and what it may mean for management positions at your workplace. 

Sources

  1. French and raven’s five forms of power: – Understanding where power comes from in the workplace. (n.d.). MindTools. https://www.mindtools.com/pages/article/newLDR_56.htm 
  2. French, J. R. P., Jr., & Raven, B. (1959). The bases of social power. In D. Cartwright (Ed.), Studies in social power (pp. 150–167). Univer. Michigan.
  3. Raven, B. H., Schwarzwald, J., & Koslowsky, M. (1998). Conceptualizing and Measuring a Power Interaction Model of Interpersonal Influence. Journal of Applied Social Psychology, 28(4), 307-332. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1559-1816.1998.tb01708.x 
  4. Raven, B. H. (1992). A Power/Interaction Model of Interpersonal Influence: French and Raven Thirty Years Later. Journal of Social Behavior and Personality, 7(2), 217-244. 
  5. Memoir: John R. P. French Jr. (n.d.). University of Michigan.  http://faculty-history.dc.umich.edu/faculty/john-r-p-french-jr/memoir 
  6. Bertram H. Raven (1926-2020). (2020, March 2). UCLA Department of Psychology. https://www.psych.ucla.edu/news/bertram-h-raven-1926-2020/ 
  7. Security Clearances. (n.d.). U.S. Department of State. https://www.state.gov/security-clearances 
  8. Clemons, E. K., & Row, M. C. (2015). Limits to Interfirm Coordination through Information Technology: Results of a Field Study in Consumer Packaged Goods Distribution. Journal of Management Information Systems, 10(1), 73-96. https://doi.org/10.1080/07421222.1993.11517991 
  9. Raven, B. H. (2008). The Bases of Power and the Power/Interaction Model of Interpersonal Influence. Analyses of Social Issues and Public Policy, 8(1), 1-22. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1530-2415.2008.00159.x 
  10. Kipnis, D. (1976). The powerholders. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
  11. Eyuboglu, N. & Atac, O. A. (1991). Informational Power: A Means for Increased Control in Channels of Distribution. Psychology & Marketing, 8(3), 197-213. https://doi.org/10.1002/mar.4220080305 
  12. Stern, L. W., & El-Ansary, A. I. (1988). Marketing channels. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall
  13. Gaski, J. F. (1984). The Theory of Power and Conflict in Channels of Distribution. Journal of Marketing, 48(3), 9-29. https://doi.org/10.1177%2F002224298404800303 
  14. Belaya, V. & Hanf, J. H. (2016). The dark and the bright side of power: implications for the management of business-to-business relationships. Agricultural and Food Economics, 4(18). https://doi.org/10.1186/s40100-016-0062-9