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Social power and behavior in social interactions

Working groupSocial Processes Lab
FundingIWM budget resources; DFG; Wrangell-Habilitation program (governmental funding & ESF)
Project description

Social power characterizes many instances in which people exchange knowledge (e.g., across hierarchies in organizations). Power can tempt people to focus on personal benefits, hindering collaboration. Yet, at times, especially those high in power feel responsible and take care of others' interests. When and why is this the case? Which conditions promote responsibility among power-holders?


Addressing these phenomena, this set of projects examines how power alters perception and behavior as well as the role of understanding power as responsibility. Having power (e.g., as team leader) implies making decisions that impact others' outcomes (e.g., subordinates' rewards). Power is especially relevant in virtual contexts: As computer-mediated communication (cmc) transmits less social cues than face-to-face communication, pre-existing power differences can especially influence behavior in cmc.


People can understand a high-power position differently. They can recognize the opportunities to freely pursue personal goals that such a position affords, and/or the responsibility to take care of others. Especially this responsibility is often overlooked. Power-holders rather tend to focus on the opportunities, often deciding in favor of personal interests, ignoring others' advice, and withholding relevant knowledge.


So far, our projects showed under which preconditions people are attracted to power (e.g., often, the opportunities are more attractive than the responsibility) and that power alters the way how people think about their actions – for instance, to learn from mistakes ('If only I had done things differently') or communicate with others via e-mail.


By means of laboratory and field studies, our recent projects examine (1) situational factors fostering power as responsibility (e.g., social identification; cmc collaboration) and (2) its consequences (e.g., for information sharing, physiological stress responses). Furthermore, we investigate (3) how power guides moral decision-making, causality perceptions, and numerical processing, as well as (4) self-regulatory mechanisms guiding power-holders' behavior towards others.


Prof. Dr. Naomi Ellemers, Utrecht University, NL

Prof. Dr. Naomi Ellemers, Universität Utrecht, NL

Dr. Daan Scheepers, Universität Leiden, NL

Dr. Frank de Wit, Melbourne Business School, AUS

Junior research lab Neuro-cognitive Plasticity, IWM


Scholl, A., De Wit, F., Ellemers, N., Fetterman, A. K., Sassenberg, K., & Scheepers, D. (2018). The burden of power: Construing power as responsibility (rather than as opportunity) alters threat-challenge responses. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 44, 1024-1038. https://dx.doi.org/10.1177/0146167218757452

Scholl, A., Sassenberg, K., Ellemers, N., Scheepers, D., & de Wit, F. (2018). Highly identified power-holders feel responsible: The interplay between social identification and social power within groups. British Journal of Social Psychology, 57, 112-129. https://dx.doi.org/10.1111/bjso.12225 

Sassenberg, K., & Hamstra, M. R. W. (2017). Chapter Four – The Intrapersonal and Interpersonal Dynamics of Self-Regulation in the Leadership Process. Advances in Experimental Social Psychology, 55, 193-257.

Scholl, A., Sassenberg, K., Scheepers, D., Ellemers, N., & de Wit, F. (2017). A matter of focus: Power-holders feel more responsible after adopting a cognitive other-focus, rather than a self-focus. British Journal of Social Psychology, 56(1), 89-102. https://dx.doi.org/10.1111/bjso.12177

Scholl, A., & Sassenberg, K. (2015). Better know when (not) to think twice: How social power impacts prefactual thought. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 41, 159-170. doi:10.1177/0146167214559720.

Our research in the media (examples)

Wirtschaftswoche: http://www.wiwo.de/erfolg/trends/studie-macht-foerdert-die-lernfaehigkeit/9676504.html

New York Times: https://mobile.nytimes.com/2017/05/19/jobs/power-leaders.html