Character  &  Context

The Science of Who We Are and How We Relate
Editors: Mark Leary, Shira Gabriel, Brett Pelham
Aug 09, 2019

How Your Power May Affect My Impression of You

by Diana Orghian
Business people discussing in meeting room

How do you decide if people are smart, stupid, kind, or mean?  For the most part, we decide those things based on their behavior.  We tend to automatically assume that people have certain traits if they exhibit certain behaviors.  For example, if you find out that Mary failed the written test for her driver’s license several times, you automatically assume Mary is dumb and may think of the word “dumb” every time you see her.

But what if Mary is a manager in a company where she has power over other people as opposed to a powerless employee in the same company? Will knowing about her power change your impression of Mary? We thought it might.

Power influences many of our daily social interactions, including interactions between parents and children, professors and students, and people in work settings.  Social psychologists describe power as the interpersonal dynamic in which one person influences the outcomes or the behaviors of other people.

We conducted research to look at how the power that a person has affects the way that other people perceive his or her personality. To examine this, we conducted three experiments in which university students read descriptions of either positive or negative behaviors paired with a picture of the person who supposedly performed each behavior.  Participants were led to believe that some of the people were powerful individuals, such as managers in a company, and that others were not powerful, such as entry level employees. Then, participants indicated how much they thought the person possessed the personality trait that corresponded to his or her positive or negative behavior (such as “how dumb is this person?” in the example about Mary failing the driver’s license test).

The results showed that participants were more benevolent in the impressions they formed of powerful than powerless people. When the person who engaged in the behavior was described as a manager, participants inferred that he or she had positive traits when he or she did something positive but did not infer negative traits when he or she did something negative.  But when the person was described as a powerless employee, participants inferred that they possessed positive traits when they did something positive but also inferred that they possessed negative traits when they did something negative.

For example, people who exhibited smart behaviors were assumed to be smart whether they are powerful or powerless. However, only powerless people were assumed to be dumb when they exhibited dumb behaviors. The powerful people who engaged in negative behaviors were given the benefit of the doubt.

Even though the mechanisms responsible for this finding are unclear, the pattern seems consistent and may have consequences in society. Inferring more negative traits for the powerless means that people tend to attribute the negative actions of powerless people mainly to their personality, leading people to form more negative impressions of powerless people. This bias might be one of the reasons why it is hard for powerless people to climb the social ladder and gain power.

For Further Reading:

Orghian, D., de Almeida, F., Jacinto, S., Santos, S., & Garcia-Marques, L. (2018). How your power affects my impression of you. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 45, 495-509.


Diana Orghian holds her Ph. D. in social cognition and is currently a researcher at the University of Lisbon.

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Why is this blog called Character & Context?

Everything that people think, feel, and do is affected by some combination of their personal characteristics and features of the social context they are in at the time. Character & Context explores the latest insights about human behavior from research in personality and social psychology, the scientific field that studies the causes of everyday behaviors.  

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