Goldstein & Hays (2011). Illusory Power Transference: The Vicarious Experience of Power

Noah J. Goldstein – UCLA, Anderson School of Management
Nicholas A. Hays – Michigan State University, Eli Broad College of Business

Hemant Kakkar – London Business School
Catarina Fernandes – Harvard Business School

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Question 1. How did the idea for this paper emerge? Was there a particular event or personal experience, or did it emerge from seeing the power research that was coming out and thinking that this piece was missing?  

The idea emerged from a combination of different research findings that had come out recently at the time. First, there were findings that people tend to be affected in a variety of ways by their associations with others. For example, Noah had published research (Goldstein & Cialdini, 2007, JPSP) showing that people’s perceptions of themselves could change as a function of their relationships to others, seeing themselves as more similar to close others. Second, we realized that, although there had been a lot of research on the psychology of power, all of it had focused on the firsthand experience of high or low power. Given the literature on vicarious experiences, we wondered if people might also be affected by the power of others with whom they are associated. There was a limited amount of research showing that power can transfer objectively from one person to another. For example, having a powerful friend can give me some amount of actual power indirectly because I can ask him or her for favors. However, we were interested in situations when people would psychologically feel powerful despite a very minimal association that could not provide any real power to them, even indirectly.

Question 2.  Do you think warmth, a dimension of the stereotype content model, may affect illusory power transference? For example, if a high power person is part of your group but is not friendly or warm, would you still expect vicarious transference? Conversely, would you predict vicarious transference after interaction with a high power individual who is warm/friendly but is not a part of your group?

As is often stated, this is an empirical question, and a very good one! We might guess that illusory power transference would occur regardless of the powerful person’s warmth, although warmth might exaggerate the effect by suggesting that we are closer to the warm person than we really are. The reason for this hypothesis is that illusory power transference occurs to satisfy men’s desire to feel powerful. That is, it is a manifestation of motivated reasoning. Men are so motivated to feel powerful that they use these psychological “gymnastics” to seize on even very minimal associations with powerful others. In our studies, we did not convey any information about high versus low warmth of the powerful associate, and in fact the only information participants received about the powerful associate were the associate’s initials. However, as mentioned, it seems reasonable to assume that if we knew that the associate was warm and well-intentioned, the vicarious experience of power might be even stronger. This might cause the effect to occur in women as well.

Question 3. For how long do you think the illusory transference effect would last? Would it dampen over time? If one is in constant touch with a high power individual as part of his/her job, would you expect this effect to persist and be more permanent, or over time would one become more objective about his/her position in the hierarchy and, as a result, the vicarious power transference would disappear?

We expect that illusory power transference would occur for at least as long as a relationship lasts, because an individual would be continually reminded of his association with the powerful other. However, as noted above, power transference can become less illusory and more real (even if indirect) to the extent that an individual has a meaningful relationship and access to a powerful other. In the example in your question, we would expect that the illusory power transference would continue but in addition, actual power transference would occur over time to the extent that the relationship developed.

Question 4. [more for Nick] Status is a construct that is often correlated with power – would you predict illusory transference to occur in the case of status? What do you think is fundamentally similar (or distinct) between status and power that make the illusory transference more (or less) likely to occur?

I would make two related predictions here. First, my guess would be that the effect would be stronger for status than for power. I say this because in other work (Hays & Bendersky, 2015, JPSP) I find that status hierarchies are seen as more mutable than power hierarchies are, which suggests that people may feel that status could be more easily transferred to them than power can. That is, people may feel that they can more easily increase in status by virtue of a high-status connection than they can increase in power by virtue of a high-power connection because status hierarchies are relatively more mutable. Second, I would certainly guess that illusory status transference would occur in women (whereas illusory power transference did not in our research) and may actually be stronger in women than in men. That prediction is based on related research of mine (Hays, 2013, JESP) showing that men desire power more than women do, but women desire status more than men do.

Question 5. [more for Noah] In the 2007 paper (Goldstein & Cialdini, 2007, JPSP), you demonstrated that individuals often identify their own traits vicariously by observing others who share similar identities. In this article, you discuss social comparison as the mechanism for vicarious power transference. Why does social comparison, as opposed to shared identities, makes more sense in the case of power transference?  

This is a very good question. We think that for vicarious self-perception processes to occur, one needs to have a high level of identification with the other because this effect is more driven by a far greater sense of self-other overlap with the other. Because illusory power transference is more of a motivated perception—where men especially want to see themselves as powerful—one need not have a high level of self-other overlap with the other, but rather just any kind of tenuous association. That’s why we focused more on the social comparison literature to explain this phenomenon.

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