Jordan, Sivanathan & Galinsky (2011). Something to Lose and Nothing to Gain: The Role of Stress in the Interactive Effect of Power and Stability on Risk Taking

Jennifer Jordan -University of Groningen
Niro Sivanathan – London Business School
Adam D. Galinsky – Columbia University

Catarina Fernandes – Harvard Business School
Siyu Yu – New York University Stern

Article link:

Question 1. What was your inspiration for looking at how stability might influence the relationship between power and risk-taking? In the paper you mention results from previous research that began to suggest the interactive effect, but were there any personal experiences or anecdotes from practitioners that inspired you as well?

There were two sources of inspiration. First, we were theoretically inspired by the ground-breaking work of biologist, Robert Sapolsky, who showed how destabilizing the power hierarchy of non-human primates (both for those at the top and the bottom) affected outcomes like aggression and stress. Specifically, he observed that when the hierarchy was destabilized, it was those primates at the top who showed the greatest negative effects – as they now had to defend their position, vie for mates, fight for food, etc. But during periods of stability, it was those primates at the bottom who showed the greatest negative effects – as they were perpetually oppressed and struggling to get the resources they needed for survival.

Second, we also wanted to examine a more dynamic approach to power. The explosion of research on power in the previous decade had primarily examined the psychological effects of power on judgments, decisions, and behavior in seemingly stable environments. We felt that the effects of power would depend heavily on whether one experienced their power as stable or unstable. Based on the previous non-human primate work, we hypothesized that destabilizing people’s power would likely have profound implications on a number of critical outcomes (risk-taking, stress, etc.).

Question 2. The paper provides a thorough investigation of the interactive effect of power and stability on risk taking. Given the growing interests in differentiating various hierarchical bases (e.g., power, status, SES, rank, influence), how would you expect the interaction amongst different hierarchical bases to be consistent or different (i.e., status and status stability, SES and SES stability)?

This is an excellent question. We proposed and found that stress was the mechanism that explained the interactive effects of power and its instability on risk-taking. Thus, to the extent that stress occurs when status and SES are destabilized (or stabilized for those at the bottom), we would expect the results to look very similar. Indeed, some existing work has suggested that stability has similar moderating effects for status. But like all programs or research, more studies are needed to see whether other forms of hierarchy are similarly moderated by their stability.

Question 3. Related to the above, recent literature has begun to differentiate the effects of acute power vs. chronic power. For instance, Willams et al. (2016) found that for those low in chronic power, sudden acute power gains result in greater sexual aggression. Would you expect the interaction to work differently for acute power vs. chronic power?

Williams et al. (2016) do an excellent job of parsing out contradictory findings in the literature around power and sexual aggression by examining the effects of having a sudden power surge among those with a history of powerlessness (see also Sivanathan, Pillutla & Murnighan, 2010). In contrast, we view instability and stability as anticipatory psychological states where people are expecting to either have their power position remain constant or expect it to be altered (in positive or negative directions). That said, what you point out is that the sudden injection of power to those who are chronically powerless not only produces a change in power, but also violates expectations.  Thus, a potentially fruitful avenue for future research could be to explore differences between the stability of one’s current level of power versus sudden changes from one’s previous level of power.

Question 4. Risk taking in the context of your paper is relatively high-stakes – participants’ future power depends on their risk-taking behavior. Do you expect the finding to carry over to other domains that are unrelated to participants’ potential power gain/loss?

This is both a theoretically- and practically-important question! We also wondered if reflecting on the stability of one’s power would affect their risk-taking behavior on unrelated task and more recently ran a number of studies in which we primed power and stability. These studies did not show consistent results on risk-taking outside the context of one’s power. Thus, we have generally found the effects only emerged for risk-taking related to one’s current power position. We think there is likely something unique about the interactive effects of power and stability that are most cleanly captured on risky behavior that is related to one’s power.

Question 5. Power is not your typical ASQ topic, so how did you decide to submit this paper to ASQ? What did you learn from taking the project through the review process? What advice do you have for power and social hierarchy researchers interested in publishing in ASQ?

You are right that the psychology of power is a topic not commonly explored within the pages of ASQ. That said, inter-organizational dependencies, coalitions and other related topics that share the basic tenets of power have been core topics of this journal. Our impetus to submit was directly a result of the ASQ special issue on the social psychology of power – which came at a time that the topic was at its zenith of empirical inquiry.

The review process taught us the value of clearly identifying the theoretical contribution within a mature topic and connecting the implications of our predictions to organization science – both in terms of theory and practice.

Our advice to power researchers who want to get into ASQ is the same for getting any paper into this top journal: propose theory that is generative of further research, triangulate on your hypotheses with results that draw on varying methods, contexts and samples, and finally, articulate clearly the contribution of your research to practice.

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