Insights at UBC Sauder

The Power Game: People Want Power Over Others, Even If There’s Nothing to Gain

Posted 2020-04-22

New research from the UBC Sauder School of Business shows that even if they don’t get money, status or influence, people desire power.

Look at any corporation or political organization, and it’s easy to see that some people enjoy power and the many benefits that come with it — money, security, influence, and social status, to name a few.

But if you removed all of those side benefits, would people still crave power over others? According to a new study from the UBC Sauder School of Business (forthcoming in the Journal of Public Economics), the answer for a significant cross-section of the population is a resounding yes.

In fact, the research shows that nearly thirty percent of people seek power for its own sake — and not necessarily because they have the best interests of their organization, or the people beneath them, at heart.

In order to test people’s “preferences for power,” the researchers devised a series of power games in which people could pay to exert influence over a fellow participant, who was kept anonymous. In a given round of Part 1, a participant saw a price, for example, of $2.00. If the participant paid, she earned $12.30 minus the price, i.e. $10.30, and acquired a right to determine the other person’s earnings, any amount between $0 and $16.30, in increments of 5 cents — with no further monetary benefit or loss to herself. If she chose not to pay, both participants received $12.30.

Of course, the participants who paid for power and then gave generously could simply be kind-hearted, and the ones who gave little could be mean-spirited. So, the researchers created a second part to the game, in which power-wielding participants decided between two pairs of earnings. For example, in one of the rounds of Part 1, a participant paid a price of $2.00, received $10.30 ($12.30 minus $2.00), and then gave $15.25 to the other person. Then in one of the rounds of Part 2, she was given a choice between a pair of earnings of $10.30 and $15.25, for herself and for the other participant, and another pair of earnings of $12.30 and $12.30. The former pair of earnings is identical to her actual choice in Part 1 and the latter pair is the one she could have implemented if refrained from power in Part 1.

If participants paid and decreased their earnings to determine other people’s pay in Part 1, but did not choose the same earnings pair in Part 2, it implies it was power over others, and not generosity or spite, driving their decisions. These participants were willing to pay over 10 percent of their potential payoff to be able to choose earnings of others in Part 1, but they were willing to pay nothing to implement the same earnings allocations in Part 2, when additional power was not attainable.

Remarkably, 28 percent of the participants were shown to have those true preferences for power, even though that power didn’t benefit them — and could even cost them. Thirty-six percent showed a combination of preferences for power and social preferences. “I was amazed that the percentage of people with pure power preferences and no social preferences is so large — almost 30 percent,” says UBC Sauder School of Business assistant professor and study co-author Elena Pikulina, who notes there weren’t significant differences along gender lines.

“These people want to have a say in what others are making, but they don't directly care about the numbers. They just really want to affect the payoffs.”

Titled Preferences for Power and co-authored with Chloe Tergiman (PennState), the study also found that if people were given the chance to exert influence over an organization, the effect was significantly reduced. In other words, people who enjoy power want direct influence over individuals.

The findings should come with the caveat that the participants acted anonymously, says Pikulina; in the real world they might make different choices if their decisions were observable by others.

But the results show that people who have climbed the ranks in organizations, in politics and even in families aren’t always the best ones for the job.

“People who are willing to compete for power and pay for power are not the ones who should have power, because the decisions they make are not necessarily welfare improving. In our case they're welfare harming,” says Pikulina. As a result, businesses and political parties should put clear checks in place to prevent power-hungry candidates from rising up, she says.

For example, in the corporate environment, people should be required to not only show their desire to get ahead, but also make clear how they would lead the team, and what policies they would put in place that benefit the organization as a whole.

“We have a lot of institutions in society that prevent all kinds of bad behaviour. But there is this preference for power that can manifest itself if those institutions are not there,” says Pikulina.

“There is this saying that power corrupts — and if someone is allowed to have unchecked power, and affect others any way they like, some people end up making pretty nasty decisions.”