Ever notice how obnoxious the "Big Dogs" can be? A recent study asked if power allows people to be rude, or if rudeness allows people to appear powerful. Unfortunately, they found that both perceptions are correct. If you're powerful, people will let you get away with being rude. And if you're rude, people will just assume you're powerful.
The research, published in the current edition of the journal Social Psychological and Personality Science, showed that powerful people smile less, interrupt others and speak in a louder voice. Perhaps it's subconscious, or perhaps powerful people know full well that when they don't respect the basic rules of social behavior, they lead others to believe that they have power -- that they can afford to be above the rules that others feel obliged to follow.
People with power have a very different experience of the world than people without it, according to the study. The powerful have fewer rules to follow and they live in environments of money, knowledge and support. People without power live with threats of punishment and firm limits, says the research team lead by Gerben Van Kleef of the University of Amsterdam.
Is Rudeness a Privilege of Power?
For the study, participants read about a visitor to an office who took a cup of employees' coffee without asking and about a bookkeeper who bent accounting rules. The rule breakers were seen as more in control and powerful compared to people who didn't steal the coffee or didn't break bookkeeping rules.
In addition, participants were asked to watch a video of a man at a sidewalk café putting his feet on another chair, dropping cigarette ashes on the ground and ordering a meal brusquely. They actually thought the man was more likely to "get to make decisions" and able to "get people to listen to what he says" than the people who saw a video of the same man behaving politely.
To top the study off, Van Kleef and colleagues had people come to their lab and interact with a rule follower and a rule breaker. The rule follower was polite and acted normally, while the rule breaker arrived late, threw down his bag on a table and put up his feet. After the interaction, people thought the rule breaker had more power and was more likely to "get others to do what he wants."
"Norm violators are perceived as having the capacity to act as they please," write the researchers.
It's a vicious circle: Power may be corrupting, but showing the outward signs of corruption makes people think you're powerful. Perhaps this is a reflection of bully bluster, and it's up to us to put our foot down, and insist that the powerful behave, which would actually transfer the power back to us.