This article was produced and financed by BI Norwegian Business School
Power alone does not make people pursue pleasure and reward
It is only when their desires are triggered that powerful people are willing to go one step further to fulfil their dreams.
BI Norwegian Business School
In the realm of politics, a wealth of reports provides strong evidence that having power corrupts. The American president Abraham Lincoln once said, "Nearly all men can stand adversity, but if you want to test a man’s character, give him power". This quote clearly indicates that feeling powerful changes the person and the consequences of having power could be catastrophic.
But what are the consequences of feeling powerful with respect to consumption? How does power change consumers and their choices? Do people who feel more powerful seek more pleasures in their consumption?
Perhaps it is no coincidence that many companies are trying to induce feeling of power and status to their consumers. For instance, that the car manufacturer Aston Martin tempts you with “power, beauty and soul”, or that L'Oréal, the producer of cosmetics and beauty products, constantly reminds you that “you’re worth it". Even the fast food chain Burger King claims that its customers are almighty rulers who will get exactly what they want , "Have it Your Way".
Challenging theory of power
The most dominant theoretical perspective in social psychology of power (The Approach-Inhibition theory of power) posits that the feeling of power naturally and directly makes us crave rewards and increases our tendency to seek pleasures.
In his doctoral project, Mehrad Moeini-Jazani at the BI Norwegian Business School challenged the established theory that the experience of power is sufficient to make consumers swipe their credit cards to fulfil all their dreams of pleasure and reward. He believes it takes more for power to affect our behaviour.
What if power, instead of turning our reward wanting engine on, simply makes us more aware of our feelings and desires?
In that case, power alone is no longer a sufficient force for pleasure seeking. Put it differently, if this alternative proposition holds, the desires have to be activated before a powerful person can start his or her pursuance of reward and pleasure. If there is no desire activated, there should not be a difference in consumption between the powerful and normal people.
Power, sex and pleasure
Moeini-Jazani has conducted five different experiments involving a total of 600 participants to find out more about how people who experience power act when they are tempted by products and services offering reward and pleasure.
In the first experiment, the participants - all male - are first invited to engage in role playing where they are randomly assigned to one of the two roles: those with special talents for leadership (the powerful) and those who are better suited for problem solving (the powerless).
The leaders are given power to decide how the problem solvers will be rewarded. Therefore, the members of the first group, the leaders, experience power, whereas, the members of the other group (the problem solvers) feel powerless. "We wanted to induce feeling of power and powerlessness in the participants as in real world situations," the scientist emphasises.
All participants, both leaders and problem solvers, are then asked to participate in a marketing test. Half of them get to feel a bra to evaluate, while the other half get to feel an ordinary T-shirt. The bra ensures activation of the male participants' desire for sex and pleasure, while the T-shirt does not have this effect. This is actually all it takes.
The participants have now been manipulated to experience power/powerlessness and a desire for sex versus no such desire. The four groups (power with and without activated desire, and powerlessness with and without activated desire) were then asked to choose between smaller-sooner versus larger-later amounts of two rewarding items (chocolate and money). The rational decision would be to choose more chocolate and money at a later time than choosing the option that offers immediate satisfaction of pleasure for less reward.
Power increases the participants' inclination to choose immediate pleasure, but only for the group that has activated their desire for pleasure. Those powerful people who are priori tempted by sex are not able to wait and become impatient for having sooner rewards although it is less in amount.
The other experiment is conducted according to the same formula with manipulation of power and activation of desire(s), but the reward is now a lovely chocolate strawberry cake within sight. The participants were asked to assess the distance between themselves and the cake. The group that felt powerful percieved the distance between themselves and the cake shorter than the other participants. This, however, only applied to the powerful group that had had their desire(s) activated. This indicates that those in power who are tempted by sex see the rewards closer to themselves and therefore are more motivated to approach and attain them.
Does gender play a role?
To examine whether gender might change these results, both men and women are invited to participate in the third experiment. Here, Mehrad Moeini-Jazani chooses to ask the participants to write two stories: first a story about an incident where they have felt either powerful or powerless. The other story is to be either about romantic experiences or about how they do housework. The stories contribute to manipulating the participants into feeling power or powerlessness, and to activate the desire for romance/sex or not.
The participants were then asked to indicate how much they want 16 different products and services, where half of the products appeal to reward and pleasure (e.g. ice cream, pizza, go to a party, spa treatment), while the other half are typical utility products and services (e.g. milk, bread, glue stick). Consumers who experienced power with activated desires wanted products offering pleasure and reward much more than the other groups, irrespective of their gender. This experiment indicates that the effects of power and desire are ubiquitous and appear to be effective for both genders in the same manner.
In experiment four, Moeini-Jazani added a control group to his experiment to make sure that those in power are not only different from the powerless but also differ from normal and neutral participants whose feeling of power were intact. Moreover, to demonstrate the actual reward consumption, in this experiment he provided participants with apple juice to drink. After the warm-up rounds with power and desire activation, the participants were asked to test a new apple juice. Each participant was given half a litre of juice and was able to drink as much as they wanted. Participants who felt powerful and had had their desire(s) activated, drank significantly more juice than the other participants.
Self-focused attention using mirrors
“The results of our first four studies indicate that those in power have a greater tendency to act based on the activated desire. Powerful people can afford to act like this because they are less concerned about the environment and are more focused on what they want”, says Moeini-Jazni.
If this reasoning is true, then increasing participants’ attention to their internal feelings and desires only increases reward seeking among the powerless but does not change the behavior of the powerful, as they are already and naturally more focused.
In his last study, Moeini-Jazani, manipulated power and desire activation as in the previous studies. However, he added another twist in this particular study. When it came to reward consumption, he exposed half of the participants to mirrors whereas the other half continued the study without being exposed to mirrors. Looking at oneself in the mirror is known to contribute to enhanced self-focus. The participants were then tested for how eager they were to get/eat chocolate.
The mirror made no difference to those who already felt powerful. However, those in the powerless condition who had had their sexual desires activated showed a strong tendency for chocolates that was similar to those of the powerful who were tempted by sex.
In other words, looking at themselves in the mirror only made a difference to the powerless with activated desires but not to the powerful. This is because those in power do not need a mirror to become self-focused. Increased self-focus is a natural by-product of having power.
Powers - with the pants down
“When Power Has Its Pants Down” is the striking title of Mehrad Moeini-Jazanis’ doctoral thesis.
"Power in itself does not trigger the pursuance of rewards. It is when consumers who feel powerful are tempted and have their desires activated, that they are eager to satisfy their desires and their need for reward and pleasure" says Moeini-Jazani. “People with power are more self-centred than others, and therefore act more on their feelings and needs once such desires are activated” concludes Moeini-Jazani.
Another striking finding in this thesis is that when a powerful person has one type of desire activated (i.e. desire for sex), this will also spill over and affect other types of pleasure and rewards which are not obviously related to sex (i.e. the desire for money, chocolate, and going to a spa).
In terms of marketing practices, the initiatives to give consumers more power and autonomy over their purchase decisions may, according to the scientist, result in consumers buying more products that they do not need or that are unhealthy, particularly when consumers are exposed to marketing efforts that activate their desire for pleasure, a prevalent technique in advertising.
Mehrad Moeini Jazani: When Power has its Pants Down: Social Power Increases Sensitivity to Internal Desires. Series of Dissertation 3/2014, BI Norwegian Business School.