Two social psychologists, John French Jr. and Bertram Raven, first brought forward a set of five major types of power—later adding a sixth in the mid-‘60s. While much has changed since then, this classification is a great foundation for identifying some of the major power sources in contemporary society. Here, I’ll provide a new way to think of power outlets—traditionally reserved for charging your phone at night. This reconceptualization will help you better assess power dynamics in your professional, social, and personal relationships.
Resembling the ‘carrot’, incentives and rewards drive the source of this power. Power increases proportionately with the size or scope of the reward and is generally a shallow form of power—once the reward is gone, so is the power.
On the flip side of this, coercive power is the ‘stick’ used to punish. These negative sanctions may be actual or threatened, yet one must be aware of them for it to work.
This is the power you don’t question and is induced by an internalized norm of value. It is narrowed to the scope of the perceived legitimacy—accepting a doctor’s recommendations for dietary advice but not tattoo recommendations, for instance.
This is the sort of power that the in-group exudes on the outsiders looking to get in. Think alpha Plastic leader Regina George in Mean Girls. In-group members also have power over each other in a way that an out-group member wouldn’t have on an insider.
It’s established from considerable experience, education, or both. It’s the power that subsides over you when you feel content accepting legal advice from a lawyer or directions to the local saloon from a local.
Perhaps more pertinent than ever in today’s digital economy, this includes influence based on an informational asymmetry. Think Amazon’s recommended books feature which is based on what you previously bought and/or browsed.
1. French Jr., J. R. P., and Raven, B. 1959. “The Bases of Social Power.” Studies in Social Power. Ann Arbor, MI: University of Michigan, Institute for Social Research.