Power and Emotion

In the dynamic social field, it may not be magnetic waves that connect the elements in the field, but rather, emotions. Emotions can be “contagious” – they are not just felt by isolated individuals, but can be sent and received among people (Hatfield, Cacioppo, & Rapson, 1993). The relative power and power relationships among people influence how easily different types of emotions are sent and received.

Sending Emotion Waves

Interpreting emotional displays is an important way people infer who stands where in a social hierarchy. People who display pride signal to other people that they have higher status and “have” power (Tracy & Robins, 2007). In addition, power in the sense of control of others is related to the valence (good/bad dimension) of the emotions people send. People who have more control of outcomes express positive emotions more, whereas those with less outcome control express negative emotions more (Keltner, Gruenfeld, & Anderson, 2003).

You may have also noticed that people sometimes display greater freedom  -- such as by violating norms in a very public way -- in order to claim power (van Kleef et al., 2011). As candidate for US President, Donald Trump said that he could shoot somebody in the middle of 5th Avenue (a big street in NYC) and get away with it. And in fact, even though he was heard in an interview bragging about sexually assaulting women, stated that only stupid people pay taxes, violated the custom of releasing his income tax forms, and profited personally from making the government use his own hotels while in office, he won the 2016 election and most of the Republican Senators would not vote him guilty in his impeachment trials in 2020 and in 2021. Posturing, that is, projecting power, works, as long as everybody goes along with it (see The Emperor’s New Clothes).

Keltner et al.’s (2003) approach/inhibition theory of power suggests that a person in power feels fairly uninhibited. Such a person is not much constrained by fears of disapproval or retaliation by others, because (in the definition of power the theory uses), others have little bearing over the powerful person’s outcomes and opportunities. According to this theory, having power activates the “approach system,” wherein people pursue their desires and opportunities they perceive. The emotions of people in the approach state tend to be positive.

In contrast, people who are aware that their well-being and opportunities and punishments can be easily influenced by other people have reason to fear disapproval or retaliation by others. The social situation of having lower control leads to the psychological situation that activiates the “inhibition system,” that helps people suppress expression of their feelings and helps them inhibit behaviors they might feel motivated to do. People who enter an avoidance state due to low power are more about trying to avoid potential negative consequences than they are about pursuing positive opportunities, and their emotions tend to be negative.

Emotional Responsiveness

Not having others control one’s outcomes seems, then, to help prevent negative emotions. By using power to understand who pays attention to whom, we can also understand how power makes people more or less likely to “catch” other people’s emotions. People who hold power over others are less likely to pay attention to those over whom they hold power than the reverse (Fiske, 1993; Neuberg & Fiske, 1987). Presumably, if one is not paying as much attention to another person, one is less likely to notice that person’s emotions. Experimental evidence has shown that high-power individuals are less accurate than low-power individuals in judging other’s emotions (Gonzaga, Keltner, & Ward, 2008).

Emotions and Meaningful Interactions

The association between power or social standing and emotion is most likely to be occur in social interactions that involve important and meaningful choices or actions. When social interactions involve something meaningful, the emotional effects of power are stronger. In contrast, when these interactions are relatively meaningless, the emotional effects of power are likely to be weak. We therefore are likely to see differences in the emotional expression of people at different end of the social stratum when discussing controversial issues, such as social discrimination, versus more mundane issues. Berdahl and Martorana (2006) documented the first causal evidence for the association of power (i.e., relative control of own or other’s outcomes) with emotional expression (good/bad) in meaningful social exchanges.

Power and Lack of Compassion

In a laboratory experiment drawing upon he approach/inhibition theory of power, van Kleef and colleagues (2008) asked pairs of participants to tell one another about a very disturbing experience they had each had, and they measured how distressed each participant was by the other’s story as well as their baseline sense of power and a physiological measure of emotional self-regulation. They found that people who go around with a higher sense of power were less empathic – they were less distressed by hearing about another person’s suffering, and they were less interested in befriending the other participant compared to those with a lower sense of their own power over others. The researchers further demonstrated that these effects were not due to the more powerful people happening to be told less distressing stories; in fact, they happened to be told more distressing stories. More powerful people simply had a higher positive emotion baseline and they maintained it by not becoming empathic and compassionate.  The authors suggest that we may have social norms prescribing that powerful people who compassion and concern for worse-off others precisely because they often do not.




Berdahl, J. L., & Martorana, P. (2006). Effects of power on emotion and expression during a controversial group discussion. European Journal of Social Psychology36(4), 497-509. https://doi.org/10.1002/ejsp.354

Fiske, S. T. (1993). Controlling other people: The impact of power on stereotyping. American Psychologist48(6), 621. https://doi.org/10.1037/0003-066X.48.6.621

Gonzaga, G. C., Keltner, D., & Ward, D. (2008). Power in mixed-sex stranger interactions. Cognition and Emotion22(8), 1555-1568. https://doi.org/10.1080/02699930801921008

Hatfield, E., Cacioppo, J. T., & Rapson, R. L. (1993). Emotional contagion. Current directions in psychological science2(3), 96-100. https://doi.org/10.1017/CBO9781139174138

van Kleef, G. A., Oveis, C., van der Löwe, I., LuoKogan, A., Goetz, J. & Keltner, D. (2008). Power, distress and compassion: Turning a blind eye to the suffering of others. Psychological Science, 19, 1315-1322. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1467-9280.2008.02241.x

van Kleef, Homan, A. ., Finkenauer, C., Gündemir, S., & Stamkou, E. (2011). Breaking the rules to rise to power: how norm violators gain power in the eyes of others. Social Psychological and Personality Science, 2(5), 500–507. https://doi.org/10.1177/1948550611398416

Neuberg, S. L., & Fiske, S. T. (1987). Motivational influences on impression formation: outcome dependency, accuracy-driven attention, and individuating processes. Journal of personality and social psychology53(3), 431-444. https://doi.org/10.1037/0022-3514.53.3.431

Tracy, J. L., & Robins, R. W. (2007). Emerging insights into the nature and function of pride. Current directions in psychological science16(3), 147-150. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1467-8721.2007.00493.x

Discussion Questions

  • What emotions do you consider powerful people to have? Is your answer based in cultural norms? Do some emotions facilitate having power ?
  • Why is it that high-powered individuals might be less sensitive to a low-powered person's intense emotional stories than low-powered listeners?

Additional Resources

Feeling Powerful vs. Being Powerful