Theories of power: Perceived strategies for gaining and maintaining power

J Pers Soc Psychol. 2022 Jan;122(1):53-72. doi: 10.1037/pspi0000345. Epub 2020 Sep 17.


What does it take to gain and maintain power? Aristotle believed that power was afforded to individuals that acted in virtuous ways that promote the greater good. Machiavelli, nearly 2,000 years later, argued to great effect that power could be taken through the use of manipulation, coercion, and strategic violence. With these historical perspectives as a conceptual foundation, we validate a 2-factor measure of theories of power (TOPS; Study 1), which captures lay theories of how power is gained and maintained among family members, at work, and in international politics (Study 2). We differentiate TOPS from other established measures of power, highlighting that these beliefs about power are conceptually distinct from widely used measures of dominance and prestige, and uniquely predict social outcomes. Turning to social class, we find that participants who make upward social comparisons perceive themselves to be of lower class and endorse less collaborative and more coercive theories of power, relative to those who make downward comparisons and report themselves to be higher in the class hierarchy (Studies 3a and 3b). Building upon these findings, we identify theory of power endorsement as a correlate of interpersonal trust, and a mediator of how lower class individuals, who endorse less collaborative views of power, report less trust of institutions and individuals (Study 4). Theories of power provide a novel construct for understanding power dynamics at multiple levels of analysis. (PsycInfo Database Record (c) 2022 APA, all rights reserved).

MeSH terms

  • Humans
  • Politics*
  • Social Class*
  • Trust