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Robb Willer: The Powerlessness Paradox

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Robb Willer: The Powerlessness Paradox

Researchers find that feeling powerless can lead people to support systems that disadvantage them.
Protestors on a platform in the middle of a street
Understanding the psychology of powerlessness can help leaders of social movements rally the troops. | Reuters/Vincent West

When do people voice opposition to social systems that disadvantage them, and when do they, paradoxically, support them? Recent research suggests that feelings of powerfulness play a critical role in whether people take on these systems of oppression. When people feel powerful, they are more likely to express opposition to the status quo, but feelings of powerlessness can lead those same individuals to support systems that disadvantage them.

A recent paper by Stanford GSB professor Robb Willer and a team of other social scientists finds that the likelihood that people will oppose these forces depends on their feelings of personal empowerment. Those who feel powerful, for example, no matter what their social and economic status, are more likely to criticize social conditions as unfair. But people who feel powerless are more likely to support the existing order, even if it hurts them, the research finds.

“It creates a great deal of dissonance to think ‘I’m disadvantaged in this situation and it’s totally unfair that I am,’” says Willer, who conducted the research with several professors, including the paper’s lead author, Jojanneke van der Toorn, a professor of psychology at Leiden University, in the Netherlands. “People tend to reduce dissonance they feel, so they convince themselves that their situation is legitimate and acceptable. If you don’t feel like you can change your circumstances, rationalizing them may feel like the only thing to do.”

This does not mean that everyone who is in a less powerful position supports the forces and institutions that repress them. The research focused only on how people react to the feeling of powerlessness. Indeed, the research suggests that less powerful people who nonetheless feel powerful will be more likely to oppose their circumstances.

In one experiment, for example, the researchers temporarily put one group in a low-power frame of mind by asking them to write about a time when they felt powerless. The other group was prompted to put themselves in a high-power mental state.

If you don’t feel like you can change your circumstances, rationalizing them may feel like the only thing to do.
Robb Willer

Then, the researchers presented participants with statistics about inequality, such as the fact that the richest 1 percent of Americans own as much as the combined wealth of the bottom 90 percent, or that working women in the U.S. earn 17 percent less than their male counterparts do. Participants were asked to read two possible explanations of the inequality, one of which blamed the system, while the other emphasized the role of the victim.

The participants who had been placed in a low power mental state were more likely than high-power participants to choose the explanation that legitimatized the status quo, such as framing gender wage inequality through a woman’s choice to leave the workforce.

The researchers found similar results in other studies, including one study of U.S. workers. Those workers who expressed the greatest financial dependence on their supervisors were the most likely to describe their manager as fair and to agree with statements like, “I am fairly paid at work.”

The sense of dependency is precisely what propels those who feel powerless to see the status quo as legitimate. “The logic behind this,” van der Toorn explains, “is that people who feel powerless want to feel that the world makes sense and that their disadvantage is not unfair. Therefore, they legitimate the inequality that they don’t benefit from.”

This effect can explain why many protest movements have a hard time gaining traction, why members of disadvantaged groups might endorse politicians who do not advocate for their interests, and even why some people stay in abusive relationships. Not only do many people who feel helpless avoid changes that could help them, but they profess that things are actually pretty good already.

“This may be one reason why dictators work not only to seize power, but also to make citizens feel powerless,” Willer says. “Where people feel powerless, they are less likely to resist.”

None of that is to say that the obstacles to standing up to powerful forces are merely psychological or that victims are to blame. Willer stresses that a sober assessment of the potential negative consequences of confronting those of higher rank is probably first and foremost in people’s minds when they calculate whether they should rock the boat.

Understanding the psychology of powerlessness can help leaders of social movements rally the troops. “You often see leaders of protest movements trying to empower people to move them to action,” Willer notes. Consider Cesar Chávez’s “Sí se puede,” echoed by Barack Obama’s “Yes, we can” — both slogans were meant to inspire an attitude of empowerment. Leaders, Willer says, must convince others that the status quo “is not the only way that things could be, and that if they act together, they can be successful.”

There’s a lesson here for business managers, too. Since people who feel powerless have many reasons to avoid conflict, the onus is on those in power to make sure they are treating people with fairness and respect — and for managers to find ways to get a true picture of their own strengths and weaknesses through the eyes of their workers. Managers would be better off, Willer says, “to empower employees in order to get accurate feedback on employees’ working conditions and compensation.”

Robb Willer is an associate professor of organizational behavior by courtesy at Stanford Graduate School of Business and an associate professor of sociology at Stanford’s School of Humanities and Sciences.

A Sense of Powerlessness Fosters System Justification: Implications for the Legitimation of Authority, Hierarchy, and Governmentwas published in the February 2015 issue of Political Psychology.

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