Orientation to Power Basis Theory

Power Basis Theory (Pratto et al., 2011 and Pratto et al., 2008 have overviews) is general theory concerning the relationships between power dynamics, empowerment, and need and needs-satisfaction. Note that it uses a very different conception of what power is that many other theories (i.e., power is not interdependence, control, influence, etc.) but it does argue that there are different forms of power. The basic tenets of the theory are outlined below.

I.  Power and Survival

For human beings, surviving and thriving entails meeting both physical and social needs.

Constructive power is the ability to obtain survival necessities from one’s environment (physical, social).
Destructive power curtails someone's ability to obtain their survival necessities.

Power Basis Theory argues that power contests recur in human (interpersonal and intergroup) relations because each kind of power pertains to a particular survival necessity.

II. All people have specific recurring types of survival needs. Each type of power addresses the ability to meet a particular type of need.

The left 2 columns in Table 1 show this power type-need correspondence.

Table 1. Universal Survival Needs, Corresponding Types of Power, and Relevant Psychological Systems

Basic Survival Need Corresponding Type of Power Relevant Sensitivity and Motivations
 To be Whole  -Violence, +Healing - Fear, +Well-being
 To use resources  Access to resources; Control of resources  Hunger, thirst, cold, satiation
 To belong  Legitimacy (acceptance) in a   Community  Anxiety, Loneliness,   Togetherness, Desire for   approval
 To be cared for  Obligation  Mistrust, sense of duty;   empathy, attachment
 To transcend oneself  Sexuality, self-expansion, collective identity  Desire for intimacy,   awe, hope
 To interact competently with one’s environment  Knowledge  Curiosity,  Feelings of   confusion, Mastery-striving,   aversion to failure

III. Power is a joint function of the ecology and the person.

Power, in power basis theory, is not considered a property of a person or role, but rather the ability or lack thereof to meet one's needs. Power is not a capability of a person, then. Rather, it depends on how well the person (or group's) ecology affords the person's capabilities (e.g., knowledge, reach) for obtaining necessities. This ecological approach (in the biological ecology sense) implies that meeting needs and empowerment or disempowerment are part of the dynamic system of life.

Graph showing needs & power in their ecological setting.

IV. Deficiencies in people’s social and natural ecology can lead to failures to survive


For example, in studies in which we compared countries around the world on standard measures, each pertaining to one of the basic needs in Table 1, we find that the rate of transmission of HIV, and mortality rates are higher in countries that are lower in measures of whether there are enough necessities to be found in the country, and how easily or broadly people can get to each kind of resource (Bou Zeineddine & Pratto, 2017; Tan, et al., 2014).

Here is an example of the difference of the existence of a necessity, and whether it is accessible. There are nations with very low Gross Domestic Product (GDP), so there is not much valuable cash in the economy, and that tends to correspond very strong to having poor infrastructure like schools, roads, and hospitals. However, even some middle GDP nations vary substantially in how unequal access to material necessities, health care, education, and other means of meeting needs is. For example, a nation with high GDP but high income inequality or high unemployment means the most fungible material wealth is inaccessible to some but not others. In statistical terms, this means that unemployment or GINI can moderate how much the mortality rate is related to GDP (see Bou Zeineddine & Pratto, 2017).

V. Psychology of Power

Psychological processes help people sense needs, means of meeting them, and motivation to do so.

People's psychology, particularly their sensitivity system (which enables them to notice, detect, and interpret information about their own and cared-for others' needs and well-being) and their motivational system (which produces feelings to motivate people to take action to meet theirs' and others' needs) are part of the system that helps people to meet their needs. Pratto et al. (2011) reviewed some of the ways that most people's ordinary sensitivity and motivational systems can become damaged and have reduced function, such as trauma, depression, abuse.

For each type of need, there is a matching kind of power and sensitivity which can motivate actions to seek power (see Table 1).

  • People have psychological sensations to detect their needs and how their environment is likely to afford those needs.
  • The psychology of desire and satiation are important aspects of the sensibility and motivational systems to help people meet their needs.
  • There are potential faults in the psychological sensibility/motivation systems:
    • Psychologically, it can be hard to distinguish desire from need.
    • When people are deprived for too long or traumatized, sensibility and motivation can become faulty.
    • Mis-calibrated sensitivity systems (e.g., trusting an unreliable way to meet needs) can also cause failures to survive.

VI. The Transformable (Fungible) Nature of Power


Often,  having any one type of power (such as material wealth) can enable one to gain other types of power (such as belongingness in a community and/or a family). One does not necessarily have to exchange one kind of power for another; rather they are like having your cake and eating it too: positive sum. This is why any form of power can be fungible: used to gain other forms of power, but without loss.

Sometimes you can transform types of power within yourself. You might use imagination to help gain all kinds of things. But when power transformations occur (commonly) through interactions (direct or indirect) with other people, how fungible something is depends on whether many people in your context are willing and able to help make that transformation. For example, if there was a society that did not accord high status to rich people, then material resources would not be fungible with social status there.

Needs can also be fungible. For example, losing your health might lead you to lose your job. Just as there can be upward power spirals for individuals and for groups, there can also be negative need spirals for individuals and groups.

VII. The Dynamic Nature of Power


The state of power changes most of the time because: Individuals’ and group’s needs develop, may be met, then recur.

  • How easily the environment meets one’s needs (ecological affordance) also changes.
  • Other people, with their own survival needs, are always part of one’s ecology.
  • People can often engage in social transactions to change a particular form of power they have (e.g., material resources, knowledge) into a different kind of power (e.g., legitimacy, violence). This is what makes power fungible.

VIII. This summary of Power Basis Theory incorporates,  extends, and contrasts with many other theories and approaches to power.


Different theories of or about power emphasize different properties of power. Table 2 below enumerates these properties and explains how Power Basis Theory addresses each feature (see also Pratto, 2016).

Table 2 Comparison of Various Theoretical Conceptions of Power

Properties of Power Examples Important Sources

Power Basis Theory’s view

Freedom of choice: Power to

Interdependence theory states that the more powerful party in a relation is the one with the best alternatives to the relationship (e.g.,  freedom to exit, can fulfill desires elsewhere).

A person whose job skills are in demand is more free to leave any particular job.


A person with family commitments in an area with few employers has restricted job options.

Thibault & Kelly (1959)


Keltner, Gruenfeld, Anderson (2003)

PBT incorporates the important insight that alternatives are essential to understanding power. However, PBT argues that one could be empowered because of one’s relation to one’s environment, without dominating another party.
Relational: Power over


One party has power over another by controlling the other’s outcomes.

Supervisor influences whether a subordinate gets fired or receives opportunities for advancement.

A classmate can praise or humiliate another classmate.

French & Raven (1958) identified several interpersonal influence tactics, now termed soft (positive) & harsh (negative).

Fiske & Berdahl’s (2007) review centers on this definition.

PBT asserts that relational power is not the only kind of social power (see above). PBT argues that power is social because of the property below.
Transformable: Liquidity

Kinds of power can be fungible with other kinds (i.e., can be transformed into another) and can be transferred without loss from one party to another.

Colonizers use wealth to “buy” weapons and armies, which enable their access to other people’s resources.


An endorsement from an expert confers legitimacy on a novice.

Russell (1938)


Cartwright (1959)


Wilson (1973)

Yes—Power Basis Theory argues that different kinds of power are fungible (depending on social context), which is why they are rightly called “power.” Power is often social because social interaction is necessary for fungibility.
Potential: Power enables possibilities. Coercion works because one anticipates the possibility another may cause harm. Flattery may be appealing because one anticipates it may produce a desired outcome. Lewin (1951) Yes—PBT argues that an important way people gauge their ecologies is anticipate what they can do and what others can do. This is why subjective judgments are an important part of the psychology of power.
Power as position:

Power is associated with position in a social structural, or with authority.

People whose gender or ethnic group is favored in employment is likely to have more power in several ways; readier access to resources, to valuable associations with other people, to safety, to social legitimacy or prestige. Parsons (1952);


Sidanius & Pratto (1999) Social Dominance Theory states that a group who has better access to any socially-desired thing than another group has more power.

PBT acknowledges the fact of structural power. Unlike structural approaches, PBT extends these approaches by identifying a different motivation for power (survival), and suggesting how power distributions are created and can change because of fungibility.


Bou Zeineddine, F. & Pratto, F. (2017). The Need for Power and the Power of Need: Towards a universalist political psychology. Advances in Political Psychology, 38, 3-35. DOI: 10.1111/pops.12389

Pratto, F. (2016). On power and empowerment. British Journal of Social Psychology, 55, 1-20. https://doi.org/10.1111/bjso.12135

Pratto, F. & Bou Zeineddine, F. (2015). Politics and the Psychology of Power:  Multi-level Dynamics in the (Im)Balances of Human Needs and Survival. J. Forgas, W. Crano, & K. Fieldler (Eds.) Sydney Symposium on Social Psychology, Sydney, Australia. (pp. 243-261).

Pratto, F., Lee, I., Tan, J. & Pitpitan, E. (2011). Power Basis Theory: A psycho-ecological approach to power.  In D. Dunning (Ed.), Social Motivation (191-222). New York: Psychology Press.

Pratto, F., Pearson, A. R., Lee, I., & Saguy, T. (2008). Power dynamics in an experimental game. Social Justice Research, 21, 377-407. http://dx.doi.org/10.1007/s11211-008-0075-y

Tan, J. Y., Earnshaw, V. A., Pratto, F., Rosenthal, L. & Kalichman, S. (2014). Social-structural indices correspond to between-nations differences in HIV prevalence. International Journal of Sexually Transmitted Diseases and AIDS.  doi:10.1177/0956462414529264

Additional Resources

Power Basis Theory Website