A team of researchers believes individual behavior is influenced when status is not associated with a position of power.
Scientists from the University of Southern California, Stanford and the Kellogg School of Management discovered individuals placed in this role have a tendency to engage in activities that demean others.
According to the study, the combination of some authority and little perceived status can be a toxic combination.
Researchers based their findings on the presumption that low status is threatening and aversive and that power frees people to act on their internal states and feelings.
The study will be published in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology.
To test their theses, the authors conducted an experiment with students who were told they would be interacting with a fellow student in a business exercise and were randomly assigned to either a high-status “Idea Producer” role or low-status “Worker” role.
Then these individuals were asked to select activities from a list of 10 for the others to perform; some of the tasks were more demeaning than others.
The experiment demonstrated that “individuals in high-power/low-status roles chose more demeaning activities for their partners (e.g., bark like a dog three times) than did those in any other combination of power and status roles.”
The study is pertinent because the issue of possessing power without status may have contributed, for exampe, to the actions committed by U.S. soldiers in the Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq in 2004.
Study authors say the Abu Ghraib torture of prisoners was reminiscent of behaviors exhibited during the famous Stanford Prison Experiment with undergraduate students that went awry in the early 1970s.
In both cases the guards had power, but they lacked respect and admiration in the eyes of others and in both cases prisoners were treated in extremely demeaning ways.
Dr. Nathanael Fast, assistant professor of management and organization at the USC Marshall School of Business, said that he and his colleagues focused on the relationship between power and status because “although a lot of work has looked at these two aspects of hierarchy, it has typically looked at the isolated effects of either power or status, not both.
“We wanted to understand how those two aspects of hierarchy interact. We predicted that when people have a role that gives them power but lacks status—and the respect that comes with that status—then it can lead to demeaning behaviors.
“Put simply, it feels bad to be in a low-status position and the power that goes with that role gives them a way to take action on those negative feelings.”
Investigators say social hierarchy does not lead to derogatory or demeaning tendencies.
In other words, the idea that power always corrupts may not be entirely true. Just because someone has power or, alternatively, is in a “low-status” role does not mean they will mistreat others.
The effects appear synergistic as power and status combine to produce results that cannot be fully explained by studying only one or the other basis of hierarchy.
The authors believe the dynamic can be overcome by finding ways for all individuals, regardless of the status of their roles, to feel respected and valued. The authors write: “…respect assuages negative feelings about their low-status roles and leads them to treat others positively.”
Opportunities for advancement may also help.
“If an individual knows he or she may gain a higher status role in the future, or earn a bonus for treating others well, that may help ameliorate their negative feelings and behavior,” Fast said.
Nevertheless, individuals and society will remain in peril as long as roles allow having power without status persists.
This involvement, “whether as a member of the military or a college student participating in an experiment, may be a catalyst for producing demeaning behaviors that can destroy relationships and impede goodwill.”