The Need for Power *

David A. Gershaw, Ph.D.

Power can be viewed in many ways. Psychologist Rollo May defines power as "the ability to cause or prevent change." David McClelland, a pioneer of much psychological research on power, defines it as "the need to have an impact upon or control over others." Although many people may brand power as being bad, power can be good when used properly. In 1972, Rollo May proposed five kinds of power two are negative, one can be either positive or negative and two are positive.

  1. Exploitative power used on another is the most destructive form of power. The aggressor allows the victim no options in the exchange. Exploitative power is exemplified by making demands on a victim while holding a gun to that person's head or demanding that an employee engage in sexual relations or be fired.
  2. Manipulative power used over another a second negative power, pertains to persons who are unequal in their power and resources. The person with more power influences the other's behavior. Quite common in human interactions, manipulative power includes unfair interactions that sometimes occur between parent and child, teacher and student, therapist and client and husband and wife.
  3. Competitive power used against another can be negative or positive. In its negative form, one person gains only if another has a loss of some sort. In its positive form, competitive power is stimulating and constructive. Competitive power is represented by business exchanges, sibling rivalry and various sporting events.
  4. Nutrient power used for another is used when an individual is concerned with the welfare of other people. Individuals use their power to advance or comfort others. Nutrient power is common among parent and child and among intimate friends.
  5. Integrative power used with another is the most constructive use of power. Beyond nutrient power, integrative power is performed with the other person instead of merely for the other person. For example, a challenging student question may help a teacher present a more inspiring or creative lecture. Likewise, a student study session if students all contribute to the effort can involve integrative power.

In contrast to May's five types of power, David McClelland suggested four types, which develop in stages. A person who has developed through all four stages can use any of the types of power.

The first stage involves power through dependency. In this stage, the person derives power from being near sources of strength, such as friends, family members and employers. Individuals in this category often like working for a powerful individual.

The second stage emphasizes autonomy and represents a shift from external control to internal control. In this stage, individuals often emphasize having control over their own bodies and minds. They may enjoy such activities as bodybuilding, dieting, yoga and learning about psychology. (This may be a reason why you are reading this article now.)

The third stage involves assertion and competition. At this stage, gift giving is more likely to be an act of domination rather than an act of sharing. Like May's competitive power, McClelland's competitive stage can be used in either negative or positive ways.

Stage-four persons emphasize selfless service to an ideal. These people satisfy power needs by subordinating personal goals to a higher authority. Individuals in McClelland's fourth stage reflect the same characteristics as those using May's nutrient and integrative power.

Some people have a higher need for power (NP) than others. A great deal of psychological research has been done with high NP people. Here are some of the findings.

  1. Men with high NP are more argumentative and more easily angered than men with low NP.
  2. The emphasis on power among men is highest in midlife.
  3. Throwing objects, taking off from work just because you don't feel like going, and taking towels from a motel are all associated with NP of working-class men.
  4. For older adults, NP is significantly related to the number of credit cards they carry.
  5. In intimate relationships, men often use power to have sex, but women use power more often to avoid sex.
  6. High NP college men tend to own prestigious possessions, read flashy, status-oriented magazines, exploit sexual relationships and like to gamble.
  7. High NP college women lend valuable possessions more readily and frequently than other college women. In contrast, high NP college men are less likely to lend valuable possessions than other college men.
  8. People in power positions give out less intimate information than do other people.

Whether you realize it or not, there is always a balance of power. The scales might shift periodically from some individuals to others and back again. So when you have power I hope you will use it wisely and positively. Otherwise, when you power wanes, you may regret it.

* Adapted from Simons, Irwin and Drinnin's Psychology: The Search for Understanding, West Publishing, 1987, pages 297-298.

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