Psychology, Department of


Date of this Version

May 2001


Published in: The Use and Abuse of Power: Multiple Perspectives on the Causes of Corruption, edited by Annette Y. Lee-Chai and John A. Bargh (Philadelphia: Psychology Press, 2001), pp. 133-155. © 2001 by Taylor & Francis. Used by permission.


Many social interactions are indelibly tinged by issues of power and of power differences. Consider some common social interactions: First, imagine a job candidate going in for an interview with a potential employer. Next, consider a teacher meeting new students on the first day of class. Then, imagine two people meeting for a first date. Finally, imagine two college roommates meeting for the first time at the beginning of the semester. Each of these scenarios contains at least two common features, which together set the stage for the arguments that are offered in this chapter. First, each scenario involves a situation in which two people are meeting for the first time— the participants are getting acquainted with one another. Second, in each scenario, there are considerations of power that may influence the dynamics and the outcomes of the interactions that occur between the participants.

Few would argue with the assertion that, in the first two situations, the individuals involved are characterized by different amounts of social power—in classrooms, teachers typically have more power than students and, in an employment interview, the potential employer has a great deal of power over the outcomes of the potential employee. The role-based power diff erences in the first two examples are fairly obvious, for the roles of teacher and of employer explicitly confer power over students and employees. However, even these two situations may have power dynamics that are more complex than a surface-level analysis would suggest. And, examining the complexity of power differences will make it clear that power differences may well be present even in the latter two scenarios, the first date and the roommate meeting. These scenarios, although not marked by obvious role related differences in social power, contain features such as differences in knowledge, expertise, or investment that may lead to power differences emerging.

The focus of this chapter is on an exploration of how power influences the dynamics of interpersonal interactions such as the ones in the examples, and how these power influenced dynamics determine the outcomes of interactions. First the nature and the complexities of the power differences present in these sorts of interactions are described, and then an exploration of the relation of power to the dynamics and outcomes of such interactions is presented.