How do power and status affect our willingness to subject someone else to degrading behavior? According to a study published in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, those who are given lots of power but who enjoy low institutional status are the ones we should fear the most.
The current issue of The Economist reports on the study (link here):
DURING the second world war a new term of abuse entered the English language. To call someone “a little Hitler” meant he was a menial functionary who employed what power he had in order to annoy and frustrate others for his own gratification.
Social psychologist Nathanael Fast (USC), with Nir Halevy (Stanford) and Adam Galinsky (Northwestern), decided to test this notion. They devised an experiment that put subjects in different status roles, whereby in order to qualify for a possible bonus payment for their participation, they could require a partner to do a variety of demeaning or humiliating tasks, such repeating “I am filthy” or “bark[ing] like a dog.”
Their results confirmed the hypothesis:
Participants who had both status and power did not greatly demean their partners. . . . Low-power/low-status and low-power/high-status participants behaved similarly. . . . However, participants who were low in status but high in power—the classic “little Hitler” combination—chose an average of 1.12 deeply demeaning tasks for their partners to engage in. That was a highly statistically significant distinction.
Implications for workplace bullying
Could these findings help to illuminate some of the bullying behaviors we see at the hands of mid-level managers and human resources personnel?
Often these individuals enjoy considerable power over underlings, but in the bigger scheme of things they usually are not the high-status players in an organization.
The researchers were not studying workplace bullying per se, so these connections are conjectural at this point. But I strongly suspect they resonate with at least a good chunk of folks who have experienced bullying committed by supervisors or HR officers.
Related post on Nathanael Fast’s research: