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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 until 2021)
Project description

Social power characterizes many instances in which people exchange knowledge and collaborate. Power can tempt people to focus on personal benefits, hindering collaboration. Feeling responsible (e.g., for one’s followers) and establishing trust may be especially challenging for leaders in virtual contexts – as followers work far away from them. How can those with high and low power collaborate effectively here? How can powerholders communicate their responsibility?

Having social power implies making decisions that impact others' outcomes. 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. 

Our research shows: People can understand a high-power position differently. They can recognize the opportunities to freely pursue goals that such a position affords, and/or the responsibility to take care of things. This responsibility is often overlooked. Powerholders 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. Furthermore, we demonstrated that anticipating digital rather than personal contact lowers responsibility among powerholders. 

By means of laboratory and field studies, our recent projects examine how powerholders can signal to others that they recognize their responsibility (e.g., to establish trust in online contexts) and which factors contribute to effective virtual collaboration between leaders and followers. Among other aspects, we find that collaboration across a distance requires frequent contact between leaders and followers in order to be successful.


Prof. Dr. Naomi Ellemers, Utrecht University, NL

Dr. Daan Scheepers, Universität Leiden, NL

Prof. Dr. Kai Sassenberg, ZPID 

Our research in the media (examples)

Leibniz-Magazin: „Machtfrage: Wie Chefinnen und Chefs handeln, hat auch damit zu tun, wie sie ihre Macht wahrnehmen.“


New York Times:


Scholl, A., & Winter, K. (in press). Responsibility as the door opener towards trust: How powerholders construe and express their power impacts others’ willingness to trust them. Journal of Applied Social Psychology.

Scholl, A., Ellemers, N., Scheepers, D., & Sassenberg, K. (2022). Construal of power as opportunity or responsibility. Advances in Experimental Social Psychology, 65, 57-107. request document

Wroblewski, D., Scholl, A., Ditrich, L., Pummerer, L., & Sassenberg, K. (2022). Let’s stay in touch: Frequency (but not mode) of interaction between leaders and followers predicts better leadership outcomes. PLOS ONE, 17(12), Article e0279176. [Data] Open Access

Scholl, A. (2020). Responsible power-holders: when and for what the powerful may assume responsibility. Current Opinion in Psychology, 33, 28-32.

Scholl, A., Sassenberg, K., Zapf, B. M., & Pummerer, L. (2020). Out of sight, out of mind: Power-holders feel responsible when anticipating face-to-face, but not digital contact with others. Computers in Human Behavior, 112, Article 106472. request document

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(7), 1024-1038. request document

Sassenberg, K., & Hamstra, M. R. W. (2017). The intrapersonal and interpersonal dynamics of self-regulation in the leadership process. Advances in Experimental Social Psychology, 55, 193-257. request document