People want power because they want autonomy

A new study published in the Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin presented two different conceptions of power to us, power as influence and power as autonomy.

“Power as influence is expressed in having control over others, which could involve responsibility for others. In contrast, power as autonomy is a form of power that allows one person to ignore and resist the influence of others and thus to shape one’s own destiny.”

The authors were interested in which of these two conceptions satisfies people’s desire for power. Do we want power to control others through our influence, or is it more about increasing our own autonomy?

Power ImageThe studies across three different continents, Europe, US and India, offer evidence that:

“… people desire power not to be the master over others, but to be the master of their own domain, to control their own fate”.

We want power over people because we want to be free. This absence of constraint, of plans not being thwarted, of ambitions not being frustrated, in essence an increase in power as autonomy, seems to quench our thirst for more power. But an increase in power as influence does not seem to have the same result, it does not quench that thirst.

The freedom to make your own decisions, and the sense of well-being that comes from doing what you want, is important.

As Julie Beck notes in her article in The Atlantic:

“All told, this research indicates that the desire for power may be somewhat misplaced: Generally, when people say they want power, what they really want is autonomy. And when they get that autonomy, they tend to stop wanting power.”

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