A person who wields social power can use it to protect their interest, maintain the status quo, challenge social justice, or influence other people’s behaviours.
They are capable of swaying the most rigid opinions to their side by appealing to their psyche either through subtle coercion or with age-long social tools they have mastered.
I know a few people who can get whatever they want in social settings, all it can take them is time and the appropriate resources.
Social influence is available to everyone irrespective of social status. This article is going to dwell on what social power is, its importance, types, influence, and how to build it.
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Social Power Definition
When you are able to influence people, control their behaviour, beliefs, and attitudes or make them take a decision in the social setting, you have got an enviable social power.
It can be acquired through various means such as wealth, education, status, authority, expertise, charisma, and access to resources.
This social competence can be exercised through persuasion, coercion, manipulation, or negotiation, and can have both positive and negative effects on individuals and society.
The Importance of Social Power
It plays an important role in many areas of human lives including relationships, politics, economics, and social interactions.
One of the most important aspects of this power is its ability to shape the way we perceive ourselves and others.
For example, people who are powerful socially may be viewed as more authoritative, credible, and trustworthy, while those who are not powerful may be viewed as less important or influential.
Being socially powerful also has a significant impact on our ability to achieve our goals and objectives, which is why the more socially powerful may have greater access to resources, networks, and opportunities, which can help them to achieve success in their personal and professional lives.
Conversely, those who are less powerful may face more barriers and challenges in achieving their goals.
Moreover, social influence can influence social change by shaping public opinion and policies owing to the ability of the socially powerful to affect public discourse and influence decision-making that can have a significant impact on social justice, human rights, and environmental sustainability.
The 7 Types of Social Power
There are seven kinds of societal powers that come naturally to our society. They are as follows:
- Coercive Power
- Reward Power
- Legitimate Power
- Referent Power
- Expert Power
- Persuasive Power and
- Information Power
1. Coercive Power: The power of coercion employs punishment or its threat to control behavior. It forces compliance through pressure, intimidation, and negative consequences. Common in authoritative roles, like bosses and teachers.
2. Reward Power: The power of reward behaviour through rewards. Promising money, recognition, or other desires influences actions. Control over rewards, granted by authority, guides behavior.
3. Legitimate Power: Legitimate power arises from formal roles, like titles or positions, recognized as authority. Legal, political, social, and religious sources contribute to order and structure in society.
4. Referent Power: Referent power stems from admiration and respect for an individual. Followers identify with the leader’s qualities, leading to voluntary compliance. Based on expertise, charisma, or attractiveness, it’s linked to role models and celebrities. Unlike coercive or reward-based power, it’s dependent on ongoing approval.
5. Expert Power: Expert power arises from knowledge and skills in a domain. Credibility and trust in competence influence others. Can be formal or informal, based on education and experience. Legitimate, earned power. More on the power of expertise.
6. Persuasive Power: Persuasive power shapes others’ attitudes and actions through adept communication. Employed in politics, advertising, sales, and public speaking, it relies on credibility, emotional appeal, and logical reasoning. Trust, emotional connection, and urgency are key components.
7. Information Power: Information Power arises from controlling valuable knowledge. Individuals, organizations, or governments leverage exclusive data to influence or gain advantages. Selective sharing and accurate information drive decisions and competitiveness.
See a comprehensive article on the power of information.
Who Has Social Influence?
Social power involves influencing or controlling others, held by authority figures or individuals with strong networks, media platforms, or communication skills. Identity factors can also shape power dynamics.
Here are examples of people who can be socially influential:
1. The Powerful
Powerful individuals wield resources – financial, political, and cultural to mold the beliefs, attitudes, and behaviours of people and institutions. High-ranking politicians and wealthy individuals impact governmental and business decisions.
Influence extends to media and social networks, shaping public opinion. They provide material benefits, reinforcing their position and societal role.
2. The Powerless
Social power isn’t exclusive to the powerful; even those lacking resources or formal authority hold influence. People leverage social networks, collective action, and community engagement to impact attitudes and values.
This power rests on belief that anyone can drive change by challenging injustices through organization and advocacy. Movements like Black Lives Matter and #MeToo illustrate this, employing grassroots tactics to highlight racism, inequality, and harassment.
Everyday resistance via humour, non-conformity, and dissent challenges norms, shifting power dynamics. Subtle but transformative, this form of power drives cultural change, showcasing that influence is accessible to all.
How Power Dynamics Work
Stated simply, power dynamics refer to the ways people relate to one another when they hold different levels of power or authority.
Power dynamics can work in many different ways, depending on a wide range of factors such as the context, the individuals or groups involved, and the nature of the relationship between them.
Here is a comprehensive article about power dynamics and how it works.
The Influence of Social Power
The influence of societal power is pervasive and can have both positive and negative consequences.
For example, a person in a position of legitimate authority, such as a police officer or a teacher, has the power to enforce rules and maintain order, which can promote safety and security in a community.
However, if that power is abused or used unjustly, it can lead to oppression and harm.
Coercive power can be effective in achieving short-term compliance, but it can also create resentment and resistance in the long run.
Reward power can motivate people to behave in certain ways, but it can also be seen as manipulative or coercive if the rewards are used to control or exploit others.
Expert power can be used to provide guidance and advice, but it can also be misused to deceive or manipulate others.
Persuasive power can be used to promote positive change, but it can also be used to spread misinformation and propaganda.
Also Read: The Relationship Between People and Society
How Power Moves Societies
Influence moves societies by shaping the attitudes, beliefs, and behaviors of individuals within those societies.
The socially powerfuls can use cultural norms, media, education, and social institutions to shape the values and behaviours of individuals and groups within society, and this can have a significant impact on the direction of society.
Here are ways social influence moves societies:
Cultural Norms: Societal influence advances through crafting and enforcing cultural norms. Shared expectations about conduct steer values and actions, directed by those with authority who foster preferred behaviors and deter others.
Media: Media serves as a vital channel of influence. Controlling information and presentation molds perspectives, enabling manipulation of public opinion, values, beliefs, and political and social impacts.
Education: Education wields significant influence. It shapes individuals’ worldviews, instilling values, beliefs, and behaviours. Those overseeing education systems have the power to shape future generations’ values, impacting society’s trajectory.
Social Institutions: Institutions like governments, corporations, and religious bodies yield substantial sway. Shaping values, beliefs, and behaviors, they also wield power over political and social outcomes, significantly steering societal direction.
The Role of Social Power in Economics
Economic influence significantly shapes resource distribution, systems, and behaviour. Those wielding economic authority impact others through resource provision, policy promotion, and control over employment, wages, and conditions.
This power can either mitigate inequality through welfare-focused policies or exacerbate it by favoring the wealthy. Economic influence dictates consumer and producer actions, profoundly impacting the economic system’s entirety.
Comprehending this dynamic is essential for establishing a fairer, more equitable economic structure, and addressing issues like exploitation, inequality, and wealth distribution.
Here are several ways in which social power impacts economics:
- Advertising: Advertisers harness influence to generate product demand, shaping preferences through emotional appeals and cultural alignment. This power impacts economies by driving production and investment via consumer choices.
- Market Dominance: Some firms wield considerable market control, stemming from size, market share, or resource ownership. This authority shapes others’ actions, often disadvantaging consumers and smaller producers.
How Social Power Impacts Organizational Structures
Influence dynamics significantly impact organizational frameworks. In a workplace context, various forms of influence, such as formal authority, expertise, resource control, networks, and charismatic leadership, shape structures.
These effects are evident in decision-making, communication patterns, resource allocation, and organizational culture. The powerful dictate decision-makers, leading to hierarchical structures.
Communication privileges and centralized structures arise from power. Uneven resource distribution and hierarchies result from influential control. Additionally, power shapes an organization’s culture, influencing values and norms that affect overall structure and functionality.
How to Build Social Power
Building influence takes time, effort, and a lot of courage. It relies heavily on your ability to understand and connect with people, as well as your willingness to take risks and initiate change.
Here are several proven ways it can be built:
1. Build Relationships: Social influence comes from building strong relationships with people who can support you and help you achieve your goals. Take the time to build genuine connections with others, whether it’s through networking events, social media, or volunteering.
Tips to build relationships:
- Be genuine and show interest in other people. Ask questions and listen actively.
- Communicate effectively and be open and honest in your conversations.
- Find common interests or experiences to bond over.
- Keep in touch and make time for the people who matter to you.
- Show respectful and be empathetic in your interactions.
- Be willing to compromise and work through conflicts.
- Be appreciative and show gratitude for the people in your life.
- Be willing to make an effort to maintain and strengthen your relationships over time.
2. Develop Expertise: Become an expert in your field or area of interest. Attend conferences, read books, and take courses to gain knowledge and expertise. Share your knowledge with others through writing, speaking, or teaching to establish yourself as an authority in your field.
3. Build your Social Network and a Following: Build a following on social media or through other platforms by sharing valuable content, engaging with your followers, and offering unique perspectives. By building a following, you can amplify your message and reach a wider audience.
4. Advocate for a Cause: Take a stand on issues that matter to you and advocate for change. Use your voice and influence to mobilize others and create momentum around a cause.
5. Collaborate with Others: Collaborate with other individuals or organizations who share your goals and values. By working together, you can pool your resources and create a greater impact.
6. Build Trust: Trust is essential for building social influence. Be honest, transparent, and reliable in your interactions with others. Follow through on commitments and deliver on promises.
7. Be Persistent: Building societal power takes time and effort. Don’t give up if you encounter setbacks or challenges. Stay focused on your goals and keep working to build your influence and impact over time.
8. Improve Communication skills: Good communication skills are essential to building social influence. Learn to listen actively, express yourself clearly and respectfully, and practice empathy.
9. Lead with influence: Leaders with social influence inspire and motivate others to action. Learn to lead with influence, harnessing the power of persuasion, collaboration, and vision.
How Social Influence Can Be Abused
Social influence is often prone to abuse. When people wield power socially, they may have the ability to influence or control others, which can lead to abuse of power.
Abuse can have severe consequences, including damaging personal relationships, harming mental and physical health, and perpetuating inequality and injustice.
- Manipulation: People in positions can use their influence to manipulate others for personal gain. They may engage in psychological manipulation, gaslighting, and emotional abuse to control and exploit others.
- Discrimination: It can be used to discriminate against certain individuals or groups, based on their race, gender, sexuality, religion, or other factors. This can manifest in subtle or overt forms of prejudice, including refusing to hire or promote employees from certain demographic groups, or denying access to housing, education, or healthcare.
- Abuse of authority: Those in authority may misuse their power to gain control over others. They may engage in unethical and illegal behaviours, such as sexual harassment, physical abuse, or extortion.
- Intimidation: It can be used to intimidate others into submission or silence. People in positions of power may threaten or bully others for fear of retaliation or punishment, making it difficult for victims to speak out or seek help.
- Exploitation: It may be used by those in position of influence to exploit vulnerable individuals or groups for economic or personal gain. This can include trafficking, slavery, or forced labour for financial gain.
- Propaganda and misinformation: It can be used to spread false information and propaganda to influence public opinion and gain political support. This can involve manipulating media, using fake news, or suppressing dissenting voices.
- Nepotism: It can be used to favour family members or close associates, regardless of their qualifications or merit. This can result in unqualified individuals holding positions of power, undermining productivity, and creating unequal opportunities for others.
Issues of Control and Domination
Control and domination are often used as a misuse of social influence. In many societies, power is distributed unequally, and those who have more power tend to dominate those with less power.
This dynamic can create a variety of issues, including:
- Oppression: Those who have less power may be oppressed by those who have more power. This can take many forms, including economic, political, and social oppression.
- Discrimination: People who are deemed to be different or deviant may be discriminated against by those who hold more power. This can be based on factors such as race, gender, sexuality, religion, or disability.
- Abuse: The misuse of power can also lead to physical, emotional, or sexual abuse. Abusers may use threats or violence to maintain control over their victims.
- Resistance: People who are oppressed or discriminated against may resist their domination in a variety of ways, including protests, strikes, or civil disobedience.
- Social inequality: The misuse of power can create significant social inequality, as those who have more power tend to have greater access to resources and opportunities.
The Negative Consequences of Misusing Social Influence
Misusing societal influence can have a devastating impact on individuals and society as a whole.
It is important to recognize the privilege and responsibilities that come with social power and use it responsibly.
Below are the consequences that accompany misuse:
- Damage to relationships: Misusing influence can lead to damage in personal and professional relationships. It can cause mistrust and lead to the breakdown of relationships.
- Loss of reputation: It can lead to a loss of reputation in the community, resulting in people refusing to work or socialize with the individual.
- Increased isolation: It can lead to increased isolation as people may distance themselves from an individual who is abusive or manipulative.
- Mental health issues: It can lead to mental health issues for both the perpetrator and the victim. The victim may suffer from anxiety, depression, and post-traumatic stress disorder, while the perpetrator may experience guilt, shame, and other psychological issues.
- Legal consequences: Depending on the severity of the abuse or misuse of social influence, there may be legal consequences. For example, workplace harassment may result in an employment lawsuit, while domestic violence may result in criminal charges.
How to prevent misuse
- Education and awareness: Raising awareness about the misuse of power and educating individuals on how they can avoid abusing their power is key to prevention.
- Accountability: It is important to hold individuals accountable for their actions and to have consequences for the abuse of power.
- Transparency: Transparency in decision-making processes and communication can help prevent power imbalances and abuses.
- Diversity and inclusion: Encouraging diversity and inclusion in decision-making and leadership positions can help prevent abuses of power.
- Empowering victims: Supporting and empowering victims of power abuse can help prevent further incidents and create a culture of accountability.
- Fairness and equality: Creating fair and equal structures and systems can help prevent the misuse of power and foster a more just society.
Social power can be a force for positive change when used effectively in society. It can help individuals and groups to achieve their goals, promote equity and inclusion, and foster cooperation and collaboration.
However, it can also have the potential to be abused, leading to negative consequences such as discrimination, corruption, and the erosion of trust.
To use social influence effectively, individuals and organizations should strive to promote transparency, accountability, and respect for diversity and inclusion.
They should also work to promote a culture of empathy and cooperation, where all individuals are valued and respected, regardless of their position or background.
By using this power responsibly and effectively, individuals and organizations can promote positive change and help to create a more equitable and just society for all.
Adolescent and Adult Psychologist
Pyo Merez (PsyD) is a certified adolescent and adult psychologist who has been on the frontline of helping adolescents and adults with mental health. An expert in cognitive and developmental psychology - social relationships, cultural contexts, and individual differences. He is also a speaker and panelist on issues bordering on budding young people.