During the second world war, when social psychology was beginning to take off, many people would have conceived of power as something like military might – the ability to destroy or coerce another group. Knowledge of specific conflicts and battles, though, can reveal that the side with more troops and more firepower does not always win. The tactics one uses and how well the other side is prepared for those tactics can influence the outcomes, too, as can the psychological state of the troops and the populace. Winston Churchill in the UK and Franklin D. Roosevelt in the U.S. regularly addressed their publics in efforts to shore up their resolve, their commitments to their country even in the face of near-starvation and aerial bombardment.
Social psychologists were very inspired by the events of World War II to address problems such as authoritarian submission (Adorno et al., 1950), obedience to authority (Milgram, 1974), attitude and behavior change (Hovland, Janis, & Kelley, 1953). They seemed to be focusing on the psychological processes that would produce followership and coordination of people aside from coercion, which they assumed was a very simple way and obvious to understand power, and one not requiring further research.
With the end of the war and the Yalta accords between the allies and the USSR settled in a relationship among what political scientist call the “Great Powers” (U.S., U.S.S.R) and the former colonial powers (France, Britain) that was not an “active” war with military attacks against militaries and civilians like both previous world wars, but was not truly peace, either. The Cold War, as it was called, was a matter of a coercive stand-off, with each side posing enough military threat to prevent the other from thinking that all-out war was winnable, and the attempt to gain effective control over other nations. In my opinion, little work on social psychology addressed these kinds of relationships as attention turned more to interpersonal relationships (see Orientation on Interdependence).
With interpersonal relationships in mind, in a paper with decades-long influence on social and industrial/organizational psychology, French and Raven (1959) enumerated what they called “the bases of power,” by which they meant a set of influence tactics. As you read the paper you will see that they were not very specific about the psychological motivations of influence agents nor those they influenced; they simply describe different ways that one actor, the agent or O, might change the behavior of another person P. Importantly, they are interested first in change, which they say is a joint function of the level of influence of O, the anchoring forces against change, and the needs of P. They also state that power is potential influence. In physics, there are ways to calculate potential energy – for example using distance, gravitational force, and the mass of an object. But this is only possible because there has been a formula developed to fit empirical data, and this aspect of the universe follows natural laws. People decide how much they want to be influenced when they are aware that they might be, and though predictable, are not nearly as perfectly predictable as inert masses. In fact, French and Raven (1959) point out that an influence attempt might have the opposite effect as intended. Thus, a major problem for empirical social psychology is to figure out the parameters of potential influence. French and Raven say this and offer their ideas as the conceptual starting point.
Adorno, T.W., Frenkel-Brunswik, E., Levinson, D. J., & Sanford, R. N. (Eds.), The authoritarian personality. New York: Norton & Co.
French, J. P., & Raven, B. (1959). The bases of social power. In D. Cartwright (Ed.), Studies in social power (pp. 150-167). Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press.
Hovland, C. I., Janis, I. L. & Kelley, H. H. (1953). Communication and Persuasion: Psychological Studies of Opinion Change. New Haven: Yale University Press.
Milgram, S. (1974). Obedience to authority: An experimental view. New York: Harper & Row.
Discussion Questions & Suggested Group Activities
- To what extent do their power bases overlap? In what ways are they similar? Specifically, what distinctions exist between reward and coercive power?
- For each base, what are some examples you experience? Do you see these individuals/groups/etc. as sources of power (and are you affected by them), or do they simply satisfy French & Raven’s criteria?
- Do you agree that psychological change is dependent on external agents able to exert power?
- What are examples of social norms that relate to the types of power and the P-O relationship?
- What cultural values exist in your life? How do they contribute to who (or what) is seen as powerful, and to what extent? If you personally choose to reject these sources of influence as powerful, do they still have power over you?
- In a group, if O has the ability to influence P without P being aware of the power being exerted over him or her, do you think this means groups are dangerous? What are some ways we can avoid groupthink and peer-pressure in relation to power (and abuse of power) in groups?
- Is, as French and Raven assert, observability required for power to take effect, or can power be “invisible” and still have an effect? Do you think invisible power is less influential?
- What tactics might you use in a specific conflict scenario? Are some tactics more appropriate than others in solving types of problems?
Find a partner or form small groups if the class is larger. Have each pair/group take one scenario notecard and one tactic notecard. Note that tactics and scenarios do not match together, and the tactic the pairs/groups draw may not be the best for how to solve the scenario.
- Your mother-in-law to be wants you to invite 250 people to your wedding and you want a small one. Persuade her to get your way.
- You want your roommate to start taking out the trash. Convince them to start doing so.
- You want to go on a fancy date with your significant other but he/she does not want to go. Convince them to go on the date.
- Your religious group is not recognized as having rights by your government. Get rights.
- Australia and the US have a free trade agreement. However, the US has withdrawn from the trans-Pacific trade agreement so Australia says they will do more trade with China. As a US trade diplomat, prevent that.
- Your country has invaded a nearby country that shares some historical background. Other countries might go to war against you for the invasion. Try to prevent this.
- One of your friends told a lie about you to a second friend who now won’t speak to you. Get your friend back (the one who believed the lie about you).
- You are an employee who would like a raise. Convince your boss.