Wide-ranging research indicates that people’s sense of social power—their sense of being able to influence others through the control of valued resources (Fiske, 2010; Keltner, Gruenfeld, & Anderson, 2003)—shapes the worlds people inhabit. Specifically, the powerful reside in resource-rich environments, are largely self-sufficient, and encounter few social constraints, whereas the powerless live in impoverished environments, characterized by fewer resources, as well as social constraints and potential threats (Keltner et al., 2003; Lammers, Galinsky, Gordijn, & Otten, 2012). What’s more, these vastly differing realities experienced by the powerless and the powerful appear to perpetuate power differences, such that power begets power (Magee & Galinsky, 2008). Essentially, having power alters how people think and behave, in ways that support the acquisition and retention of power, just as a lack of power does the opposite.
If so, an important question arises – How might an individual experience gains in feelings of power, especially when she was not powerful to begin with? The present research examined whether certain kinds of behaviors can alter one’s sense of power. In line with self-perception theory (Bem, 1972), we proposed that behaving authentically—that is,in line with one’s inwardly experienced desires and values (Harter, 2002; Sheldon, Ryan, Rawsthorne, & Ilardi, 1997), which embodies how the powerful act (Kifer, Heller, Perunovic, & Galinsky, 2013; Kraus, Chen, & Keltner, 2011) may enhance power. Six experiments (total N = 838) yielded support for this hypothesis. Specifically, participants reported feeling more powerful when visualizing themselves behaving authentically relative to inauthentically (Study 1) or recalling actual authentic, versus inauthentic, experiences (Studies 2-4). Studies 3 and 4 showed further that this authenticity-to-power link was mediated by a reduced fear of rejection for expressing one’s true self. Fear of rejection was manipulated in Study 5 to document the causal impact of a reduced fear of rejection on feelings of power. Finally, Study 6 extended the prior studies into the realm of social perception, demonstrating that people infer others’ power from their acts of authenticity. Alternative explanations such as pre-existing power differences and positive affect were ruled out.
These findings are consistent with converging evidence suggesting that because certain actions are associated with power (e.g., abstract thinking, rule breaking), the behaviors themselves come to serve as signals or cues of power for the powerholder him- or herself, as well as for perceivers (Magee, 2009; Ridgeway, Berger, & Smith, 1985; Wakslak, Smith, & Han, 2014; Van Kleef, Homan, Finkenauer, Güendemir, & Stamkou, 2011). For example, when people are induced to think abstractly, they experience greater feelings of power (Smith, Wigboldus, & Dijksterhuis, 2008), as well as when people observe others think abstractly they are perceived as more powerful (Wakslak et al., 2014). The current research identifies authenticity as a signal, to the self and to others, of having power and thereby enhances subjective feelings and perceptions of power.
Recent research indicates that power breeds authenticity (Kifer et al., 2013; Kraus et al., 2011), suggesting that people associate power with behaving authentically. The current research extended this notion by demonstrating that the converse is also true—that the experience of authenticity enhances power. This finding has several implications: First, it advances the authenticity literature, pointing out the benefits of state (rather than trait) authenticity.
Second, it demonstrates that there is a bi-directional relationship between authenticity and power. Being powerless restricts the extent to which people express their true self, which in turn thwarts feeling and being seen as powerful. Essentially, authenticity appears to be one way in which power is self-reinforcing (see also Magee & Galinsky, 2008; Smith et al., 2008; Van Kleef et al., 2011), and thus may contribute over time to the maintenance of power hierarchies.
Finally, our results also suggest that authenticity may offer a behavioral means by which to gain power. Whereas research on what leads to rises in power has traditionally focused on fixed characteristics of the individual such as gender, race, physical attributes, and personality traits (Anderson & Brion, 2014; Anderson, John, Keltner, & Kring, 2001; Anderson & Kilduff, 2009), the current set of studies aligns with more recent work in looking at behaviors that alter feelings and perceptions of power (Smith et al., 2008; Wakslak et al., 2014; Van Kleef et al., 2011), for both people dispositionally low and high in power. Thus, it has the potential to challenge the stability of power differences in current society.