C'est le Pouvoir

The Dominique Strauss-Kahn (DSK) scandal that occurred while I was still living in France raised questions about of power in international relations.  According to my Israeli friend, Eva, most things can be  explained by referring to the concept of power.  The very use of the initials DSK, for example, can be seen as a power play.  This was the belief of my friend Sébastien who, with twinkling eyes, told me, “Oh, the K is very important. Very. Important. It links him to JKF.”  The fact that DSK was picked up at JFK (airport) is thus rather poetic. 

The problem, for virtually everyone in international contact, is that having power (e.g., having status and control over desired resources) accords people entirely different things in different cultures.   In a research paper with several colleagues, I reported findings showing that on several dimensions, definitions (i.e., concepts) of power differ across two countries of Europe -- France and Germany -- Japan and the US:  Young adults in the four countries do not view power in the same way.  The two aspects of power that we looked at were its relation to norms (i.e., does power mean you uphold the norms of your society or does it mean that you operate outside the norms?) and its relation to others (does having power mean you can control your own destiny, or the destinies of other people?). 

Interestingly, the young Japanese and American students defined power more similarly to each other and differently than the Europeans.  For instance, more than the European students, the Japanese and American respondents defined power in terms of controlling ones own outcomes rather than controlling others.  German students in particular thought that power was less related to upholding social norms than the other groups. This belief is consistent with a statement made centuries earlier by Fredrick the Great, King of Prussia, who reportedly said, “My people and I have come to an agreement which satisfies us both. They are to say what they please, and I am to do what I please.”

My study had a lot of limitations, but I think the important take-home message was that there are cross-national differences in interpretations of what power is and what it affords.  So what you do with someone in power is part of the struggle between France the US as concerned DSK. The French were particularly scandalized by the fact that American media was publicizing photographs of, DSK wearing handcuffs or looking haggard and unshaven.  The valid concern was that the charges ended the political career of someone who was ripe for becoming president of the Republic.

The concern was valid because we know the power of innuendo, if you will excuse the pun. Daniel Wegner and colleagues published a classic paper called “Incrimination through innuendo: Can media questions become public answers?”  The three reported studies showed that when people were exposed to questions ostensibly posed by media sources, such as “Is D a criminal?” they later believed D to be one.  Participants in the study were also influenced by the statement, “D is not a criminal!” (i.e., they showed limited memory for the word “not” in their judgments). And these effects were still present even when the credibility of the media communicating the information was thought to be low.  In other words, those of us who were alive when Nixon said he was not a crook promptly forgot the word “not” and were later reinforced for this failure of memory.

Social psychologists have shown all sorts of effects of power on behavior.  In a study by Carney, Cuddy, and Yap, experimenters had participants pose open, expansive body postures that both animals and humans use to convey high power or else a closed, constricted posture that is used to communicate submission.  The researchers found that high-power posers showed increases in testosterone and decreases in cortisol.  They also reported greater feelings of power and a higher tolerance for risk-taking. Participants who posed low-power posture showed the opposite pattern of effects for both the hormone and behavioral measures.  Such findings suggest that the JFK - DSK comparison is apt; but we already knew that, right? [Since I wrote this these findings have been contested due to failure to replicate.]

So, we do know a lot.  We know that social power is defined differently in different countries, but we know that once the feel that they have it, there are important neuroendocrine and behavioral outcomes.  What to do now?  Say it’s just the power talking or behaving or committing crimes? 

I wonder how this all extends to international power.  I suppose we could make a simple analogy to how countries treat each other.  Some research findings (I am not sure if they have been published) show that the French believe that it is unacceptable to be prejudiced against Arabs, but not unacceptable to be prejudiced against Americans.  When those findings made me feel bad, several people said to me, “Common, the US is the big powerful bully.  Of course you can’t expect the clichés and the bashing to be symmetrical.  The US gets more.”  That didn’t just erase the bad feelings, but given research in social psychology, I can see the point.

Posted by Paula Niedenthal at 7:56 AM JUN 17, 2011