Skip to Search
Skip to Navigation
Skip to Content

University of Connecticut Social Psychology Intergroup Relations

New Findings


Power Basis Theory :: Description :: Researching Power :: Findings :: Teaching Resources :: Collaborators :: Bibliography

People infer particular kinds of personality traits from the kinds of power others use or lack

Power Basis Theory states that there are several different types of power, for example, asymmetric obligations and violence. In studies of stereotype contents, we have shown that groups who use particular kinds of power (e.g., violence) are not just assumed to be powerful in general, but forceful and threatening. Using the In Game, people make trait inferences about themselves and other players that correspond to the kinds of power they accumulated in the game, and to what kinds of power they exercised in the game. These more specific kinds of trait inferences (e.g., wealthy versus forceful, respectable vs. committed) help explain why some powerful people and groups are trusted and some are not.

Inequality in power creates instability in well-being and contributes to ill health

Power Basis Theory argues that power is necessary for survival. However, when nations become wealthy, public health is not contingent on one's level of wealth, but on how equal one's society is (see work by Richard Wilkinson; Power Basis Theory researchers have contributed to understanding how this occurs in several ways. Dr.s Felicia Pratto, Judy Y. Tan, and Valerie Earnshaw conducted a study of all nations in the world of their HIV-transmission rates. The virus that causes AIDS is being transmitted faster when each form of power, measured at the national level, is more unequal. In several In Game experiments, the more inequality players created by playing the game, the more players did not "survive" the game. Further, the more objectively unequal in power their session of the game was, the more inequality there was in how good or bad players felt, and the more unstable their sense of well-being was over time. This could mean that inequality causes the kinds of psychological stress that leads to physiological stress (often seen in high levels of cortisol), which cause many kinds of health risks.

People's sense of what's fair depends on their position of power

People usually say "What's fair is fair." Sameness is an important concept of fairness. But, survey research shows that people don't judge the same things as fair. They often favor policies that would help their groups more than people in other groups do. For example, more women support choice over their reproductive decisions than men do; and middle- and low-income people favor progressive tax policies (with tax rates increasing as one's wealth increases) more than wealth people do.  Research has not shown whether this is due to simple self-interest or why their power position would change their perceptions of what is fair.  After all, most people consider fairness to involve concepts about equality. In several In Game experiments, in which we operationalized power position in different ways, we found that people favored or opposed rules and practices in the In Game that advantage people in their own position more than people in other positions did. For example, players we positioned to have less access to a desired commodity thought it was more fair to use "violence" in the game to get that commodity than players who had access to that commodity. More results show that the use of power and the fungibility of power use, which were also related to group position, help explain why people's sense of fairness depends on their power position.