INTERPERSONAL RELATIONS AND GROUP PROCESSES
From Power to Action
Adam D. Galinsky
Deborah H Gruenfeld and Joe C. Magee
Three experiments investigated the hypothesis that power increases an action orientation in the power
holder, even in contexts where power is not directly experienced. In Experiment 1, participants who
possessed structural power in a group task were more likely to take a card in a simulated game of
blackjack than those who lacked power. In Experiment 2, participants primed with high power were more
likely to act against an annoying stimulus (a fan) in the environment, suggesting that the experience of
power leads to the performance of goal-directed behavior. In Experiment 3, priming high power led to
action in a social dilemma regardless of whether that action had prosocial or antisocial consequences. The
effects of priming power are discussed in relation to the broader literature on conceptual and mind-set
The realization of most societal goals, even in situations in which the
actor’s commitment and knowledge are considerable, requires the
application of power. (Etzioni, 1968, p. 314)
In this statement, Etzioni (1968) suggests an intimate relation-
ship between power and efficacious action. Whenever a display of
action transforms the environment, power is surely lurking in the
shadows as the precipitating and driving force. Action taken is
often power exercised. We propose that power and action are
indeed intimately and positively related, that the possession of
power leads directly to the taking of action. In essence, power
channels behavior toward accomplishing a specific goal. This
proposition is consistent with a number of recent, apparently
inconsistent, contributions to the literature on how power affects
the power holder. For example, power has been shown to increase
subordinate derogation (Georgesen & Harris, 1998, 2000) and the
use of stereotypes (Goodwin, Gubin, Fiske, & Yzerbyt, 2000), but
it also has been shown to increase the use of individuating infor-
mation (Overbeck & Park, 2001). Power leads to displays of anger
(Tiedens, 2000) and self-serving attributions (Kipnis, 1972), but it
also leads to generosity in those who are already communally
disposed (Chen, Lee-Chai, & Bargh, 2001).
In their recent review of the literature on power, Keltner, Gru-
enfeld, and Anderson (2003) argued that these apparent contradic-
tions arise because power activates a general tendency to approach
whereas powerlessness activates a general tendency to inhibit. If
this is true, individuals with power should exhibit a greater action
orientation than those without power, regardless of the social
consequences of their acts.
In this article, we demonstrate empirically for the first time
this relationship between power and action. Specifically, we
show in Experiment 1 that those who possess power exhibit a
greater proclivity to act than those who do not. We find in
Experiment 2 that those who are primed with high power are
more likely to act in a goal-consistent manner, that is, to act in
ways that are consistent with desired end states, than are those
who are primed with low power. Experiment 3 explores the
social consequences of power-induced action and demonstrates
that those who are primed with high power display greater
action than those who are primed with low power or a control
group, both when acting serves self-interest and when it serves
the public interest. Thus, we find that power does not always
lead to antisocial outcomes, but it can be the catalyst for
achieving prosocial outcomes that might not otherwise be re-
alized. Our studies demonstrate that power can be conceived not
only as an aspect of social structure but also as a cognitive
structure that can be activated by an appropriate environmental
stimulus. Thus, the possession of power in one context can lead
to action in an unrelated context. We use multiple manipula-
tions of power and multiple operationalizations of action to
support our claim that power leads directly to action.
Adam D. Galinsky, Management and Organizations Department,
Kellogg School of Management, Northwestern University; Deborah H
Gruenfeld and Joe C. Magee, Organizational Behavior Department, Grad-
uate School of Business, Stanford University.
Portions of this research were presented at the annual conference of the
International Association of Conflict Management, Cergy, France, June
2001. Portions of the research were funded by a research grant from the
Dispute Resolution Research Center, Northwestern University. We grate-
fully acknowledge the assistance of Laura Snyder in running Experiment 2
and Brian Cadena for coding the power prime essays.
Correspondence concerning this article should be addressed to Adam D.
Galinsky, Management and Organizations Department, Kellogg School of
Management, Northwestern University, Evanston, Illinois 60208. E-mail:
Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 2003, Vol. 85, No. 3, 453–466
Copyright 2003 by the American Psychological Association, Inc. 0022-3514/03/$12.00DOI: 10.1037/0022-3518.104.22.1683
What Is Power?
Our investigation coincides with a recent wave of interest in the
social and psychological consequences of power (for reviews, see
Fiske & De ´pret, 1996; Keltner et al., 2003). Traditionally, scholars
have emphasized power’s determinants, including basic human
motives (Nietzsche, 1888/1968; Hobbes, 1651/1968; Mulder,
1977); individual-difference variables such as authoritarianism
(Adorno, Frenkel-Brunswik, Levinson, & Sanford, 1950) and mo-
tivational style (Winter, 1973); interpersonal variables such as
control (Pfeffer, 1992), dependence (Emerson, 1962; Mintzberg,
1983) and social exchange (Blau, 1964; Thibaut & Kelley, 1959);
and sociostructural variables such as relative expertise and legiti-
mate authority (French & Raven, 1959). Such accounts highlight
the many paths to power and explain why some actors come by
their power naturally whereas others do not. In contrast, we as-
sume that power is experienced by most individuals at one time or
another and that when it is experienced it has metamorphic effects
(see also Kipnis, 1972, 1976). Specifically, we are interested in the
psychological consequences of power for those who possess it (see
also Fiske, 1993; Gruenfeld, Keltner, & Anderson, in press; Kelt-
ner et al., 2003; Sachdev & Bourhis, 1985, 1991).
We define power as the ability to control resources, own and
others’, without social interference (for related definitions, see
Keltner et al., 2003; Thibaut & Kelley, 1959; Weber, 1947).
Because those who possess power depend less on the resources of
others than vice versa, the powerful are more easily able to satisfy
their own needs and desires. In many conceptualizations of power,
the capacity to influence and control the behaviors of others is
paramount (Copeland, 1994; French & Raven, 1959; Imai, 1993;
Manz & Gioia, 1983). This type of power has been called social
power because power is derived through one’s relationships to
others (Fiske, 1993; see Overbeck and Park, 2001, for a distinction
between personal power and social power). The notion of power as
control over others typically is operationalized by having the
person with power make decisions that determine the outcomes of
some target, either by providing directions during a task, directly
assigning resources to the target, or by simply evaluating the target
(Copeland, 1994; Fiske & De ´pret, 1996; Keltner et al., 2003;
Sachdev & Bourhis, 1985). In this article, we focus on whether the
possession and experience of social power—the capacity to control
others’ resources—impels individuals toward action.
Power and Action
Why would possessing power lead an individual toward action?
First, by definition, the powerful are less dependent on others than
others are on them for acquiring and maintaining important social
resources. Therefore, the powerful are not confronted with social
interference and constraints, and thus they have potential increases
in the opportunities for action. Second, power is said to activate the
behavioral approach system, whereas the experience of powerless-
ness activates behavioral inhibition (Keltner et al., 2003). Conse-
quently, those with power experience and express more positive
affect (Keltner, Young, Heerey, Oemig, & Monarch, 1998) and
less negative affect (Keltner et al., 2003), are more extraverted
(Anderson, John, Keltner, & Kring, 2001), and show a heightened
sensitivity to rewards and strategies for acquiring those rewards,
while showing a decreased sensitivity to threats (Croizet & Claire,
1998; Zander & Forward, 1968). A distinguishing consequence of
power appears to be disinhibition: Power allows the grip of social
norms and standards to lose their hold on regulating behavior
(Gruenfeld et al., in press). Consistent with this notion, high-power
individuals engage in a wider range of behaviors and display
greater interpersonal variability than do those placed in positions
of low power (Guinote, Judd, & Brauer, 2002). One possible
reason for this increased variability in behavior is that the expres-
sive behavior of those with power is more likely to represent
underlying feelings and personality than in those without power
(Hecht & LaFrance, 1998).
Related to the increased propensity toward action, those with
power also tend to show lower levels of deliberation. Studies of
Supreme Court justices show that those with the most power (e.g.,
members of unanimous groups and Chief justices) are more single-
minded (i.e., less cognitively complex) in their thinking about
policy options than those with less power (e.g., members of ma-
jority factions who faced vocal dissent) who are more likely to
weigh the pros and cons of various response choices (Gruenfeld,
1995; Gruenfeld & Kim, 2003). Also, as dominance orientation
increases, the evaluations of target individuals become less com-
plex, with impressions displaying less cognitive integration
(Woike, 1994). In fact, the kind of deliberation associated with
high cognitive complexity is often associated with the failure to act
(Lerner & Tetlock, 1999). Action and deliberation, as James
(1890) suggested, may be inherently incompatible. To act effec-
tively, one must be freed from doubt (Gollwitzer, 1996; Mosko-
witz, Skurnik, & Galinsky, 1999), and power provides one mech-
anism to reduce deliberation and facilitate the taking of action.
In sum, these considerations suggest that possessing and expe-
riencing power will reduce deliberation and increase the propen-
sity to act. Most of the research linking power with approach
tendencies is correlational and therefore subject to a number of
alternative explanations (for a review, see Keltner et al., 2003). We
wanted to demonstrate not simply that power and action are
associated, but that power directly leads to action. Freed from
social interference, thinking heuristically, experiencing approach-
related emotions, and insensitive to lurking punishments and
threats, the powerful should be prone to act.
Power as a Psychological State
Power is often conceived of as a structural variable (Ng, 1980)
and as a property of social relationships (Emerson, 1962). We
argue that power can also become a psychological property of the
individual. The experience of holding power in a particular situa-
tion generates a constellation of characteristics and propensities
that manifest themselves in affect, cognition, and behavior (Kelt-
ner et al., 2003). We suggest that the concepts and behavioral
tendencies associated with power are activated whenever the pos-
session of power is implied, consciously or nonconsciously, in a
new situation, or even when an experience with power is simply
recalled. Because these propensities are stored in memory, they
can be carried outside of the situation in which power was directly
The effects of activating the concept of power have been dem-
onstrated by Bargh and his colleagues (Bargh, Raymond, Pryor, &
Strack, 1995; Chen et al., 2001), who invoke the auto-motive
model (Bargh, 1990) to explain how mental constructs—from
GALINSKY, GRUENFELD, AND MAGEE
semantic constructs to goals—can be stored in memory and thus
be subject to the principles of general construct activation. When-
ever a goal or construct, such as power, is activated, associated
concepts and behavioral tendencies are also activated. For exam-
ple, Bargh et al. (1995) found that activating the concept of power
through a word-fragment completion task led those with a predis-
position toward sexual harassment to view women in sexual terms.
For these men, power and sex were strongly associated, such that
activating power automatically activated sexual desire. Similarly,
we suggest that activating the concept of power should activate
those behavioral tendencies associated with power.
Specifically, we claim that power and action are intimately
associated such that activating the concept of power should in-
crease the tendency toward action, even in contexts in which
power is not directly possessed, applicable, or relevant. To test this
idea, we used two different manipulations of power and a variety
of dependent measures. One manipulation (Experiment 1) in-
volved actually placing individuals in a hierarchical structure (i.e.,
as either a manager or a subordinate). The other manipulation of
power (Experiments 2 and 3) involved having participants recall a
time either in which they had power over another person or in
which someone else had power over them. In each experiment, the
manipulation of power was separated in both time and context
from the action-based task. Thus, we hoped to show that activating
the concept of power could have effects not only within the current
situation but also in unrelated contexts. The measures of action in
our studies included taking a card in a simulated blackjack game
(Experiment 1), dealing with an annoying stimulus in the environ-
ment (Experiment 2), and acting on—both by taking from and
giving to—a common social fund (Experiment 3). We hoped to
show across multiple operationalizations of both power and action
that the possession of power leads directly to the taking of action.
Experiment 1: Hit Me!
To explore whether power leads to action, we placed partici-
pants into one of two structural positions within a hierarchy.
Participants were either put into the role of a manager or a
subordinate. The managers were told they were going to direct,
evaluate, and reward the subordinates in a coordination task that
involved building a Lego model. After assigning participants to the
role of manager or subordinate, but before the Lego building task
took place, participants took part in a simulated blackjack scenario
(as part of an ostensibly separate experiment). In a game of
blackjack, the dealer deals each player two cards facedown and
deals him or herself two cards, one facedown and one faceup. A
player can continue to ask for cards (to request a “hit”) until he or
she decides not to take any more cards (to “stand”) or until the total
of the cards exceeds 21 (and the player “busts”). The dealer,
however, must hit if his or her total is 16 or fewer and must stand
when the hand is 17 or higher. Thus, the player’s goal is to
accumulate more points than the dealer without busting. On the
basis of the work of Miller and Taylor (1995), we chose for our
blackjack game a particularly vexing situation in which the par-
ticipants possessed a hand totaling 16 and the dealer’s faceup card
was a 10. In this situation, the player will lose the majority of the
time, but their odds are increased when they take a card. As it turns
out, this is the one situation in which professional blackjack
players fail to maximize their chances of winning (Keren &
Wagenaar, 1985); more than two thirds of professional players fail
to take a card in this situation (Miller & Taylor, 1995, hypothe-
sized that this occurs because players anticipate feeling more
regret when they bust than when the dealer out-scores them).
Once participants were confronted with this situation, they were
asked whether they wanted to take a card (to hit) or not (to stand).
We hypothesized that those participants who were currently occu-
pying a position of power and authority would be more likely to
take a card than would those participants lacking structural power.
Thus, possessing power would lead to action, even in a situation
that was functionally irrelevant to their position of power.
Participants were 32 students and university staff (21 women and 11
men) who participated for payment of $15.
Design and Procedure
The experiment involved two conditions: high power (manager) and low
power (subordinate). Participants arrived in groups of 2 or 3. Participants
sat at a large table where they each completed a “Leadership Question-
naire” (Anderson & Berdahl, 2002). This questionnaire asked participants
to report their grade point average, any leadership positions they had held,
and a number of trait ratings about themselves.
The procedure for manipulating positions of
power was directly adapted from Anderson and Berdahl (2002). After
completing the Leadership Questionnaire, the experimenter informed the
participants that they would be doing a coordination task, and that the task
required one person to be the manager and the other(s) to be the subordi-
nate(s). The experimenter told them that their responses on the Leadership
Questionnaire would be used to assign one of them to the role of manager.
The experimenter then went to a table outside the room to mark the
questionnaires with a red pen. In fact, the roles of manager and subordinate
were randomly assigned before the participants arrived. Then, the experi-
menter came back into the room and announced which of the participants
was selected to be the manager and asked that participant to come across
the hall into a different room. There, the manager was given a description
of the role and a bag of Legos. The experimenter informed this participant
that, on the basis of their responses to the Leadership Questionnaire, he or
she was best suited for the role of manager. The manager was given
instructions that emphasized that he or she would have complete control
over the work process, the evaluation of the subordinates, and the division
of rewards. Specifically, the experimenter told the manager the following:
As manager, you are in charge of directing the subordinates across the
hall in building something called a Tanagram from a set of Legos.
You will decide how to structure the process for building the Tana-
gram and the standards by which the work is to be evaluated. In
addition, you will also evaluate the builders at the end of the session
in a private questionnaire—that is, the builders will never see your
evaluation. The builders will not have the opportunity to evaluate you.
Your evaluation will determine how the bonus money, an amount of
$15, will be divided between the builders and you. Thus, as a man-
ager, you will be in charge of directing the building, evaluating your
subordinates, and determining the rewards you and your subordinates
For those participants assigned to the role of subordinate, the experi-
menter emphasized that they would have no control over how the work was
done, the evaluation process, or the division of resources. Specifically, the
subordinates were told the following:
POWER TO ACTION
As a builder, you will have the responsibility of carrying out the task
of building a Tanagram according to instructions given to you by your
manager. Your manager will call you in to give you instructions when
ready. Your manager will decide how to structure the process for
building the Tanagram and the standards by which the work is to be
evaluated. Which tasks you complete will be decided by the manager.
In addition, you will be evaluated by the manager at the end of the
session. This evaluation will be private; that is, you will not see your
manager’s evaluation of you. These evaluations will help determine
how the bonus money, an amount of $15, will be divided between the
builder and the manager. You will not have an opportunity to evaluate
your manager. Only the manager will be in charge of directing
production, evaluating your performance, and determining the re-
wards you will receive.
The experimenter then told the subordinates that they needed to leave the
room so that it could be prepared for building the Tanagram. The experi-
menter then led subordinates into the same room as the manager, where all
participants were asked to sit at individual, divided cubicles. They were
asked to complete a task on the computer that was described as a pretest for
a future study while the experimenter set up the Tanagram task in the other
room. In fact, the task was the simulated blackjack scenario.
Action measure: Blackjack game.
at a blackjack table in Las Vegas. They were informed that the rules of
blackjack dictate that whoever (the dealer or themselves) is closest to 21
without going over 21 (or busting) wins the hand. The participants’ two
cards totaled 16 and the dealer’s faceup card (the dealer always has one
card faceup and one card facedown) was a 10. The dealer (i.e., the
computer) asked them, “Do you want to hit [i.e., take a card]?” Participants
selected one of two buttons marked “Yes” and “No.”
After completing the simulated blackjack scenario, the subordinates
were led back into their original room and completed manipulation checks.
The manager also completed manipulation checks. Then, the experimenter
told the participants that they had run out of time, and that they would not
be building the Tanagram. Finally, the experimenter informed participants
that the Leadership Questionnaire had no known relationship with leader-
ship ability and that the roles had been randomly assigned. Participants
were paid and debriefed about the nature of the study before they left.
Participants were told that they were
Participants were asked to rate how much they were in charge of
directing the task, evaluating the other participants, allocating the
$15, and to what extent they had power over the subordinates (or
vice versa) on 7-point Likert-type scales ranging from 0 (none/not
at all) to 6 (a lot/very much).1Reliability for these items was high
(? ? .94), so they were averaged to form a power index. Managers
experienced significantly more power (M ? 5.21, SD ? 0.40) than
did the subordinates (M ? 1.43, SD ? 1.22), t(27) ? 10.31, p ?
.001, which indicates that the manipulation of power was effective.
We predicted that those participants who occupied a position of
power would show a greater propensity to act and take a card in the
simulated blackjack scenario compared with those who occupied a
subordinate position. The chi-square test was significant, ?2(1,
N ? 32) ? 4.07, p ? .04. Ninety-two percent (12 of 13) of
high-power participants elected to hit—to take a card—whereas
only 58% (11 of 19) of low-power participants elected to hit.
Furthermore, we investigated each condition’s deviation from
chance likelihood (.5) of taking a card. A nonparametric chi-square
test showed that high-power participants significantly deviated
from chance likelihood of taking a card, ?2(1, N ? 12) ? 8.33, p ?
.01, whereas low-power participants did not, ?2(1, N ? 19) ? 1.
One question that emerges from the results is whether it is the
possession of power that increases the tendency toward action or
whether it is subordination that is inhibiting action. To address this
question, an additional 17 participants participated in the simulated
blackjack scenario but in the absence of the power manipulation.
The results of this baseline control condition were almost identical
to the low-power condition, with only 59% of these control par-
ticipants taking a card. High power participants were significantly
more likely to take action at the blackjack table compared with
these control participants, ?2(1, N ? 30) ? 4.22, p ? .04. This
comparison with a baseline control condition strongly suggests
that it was the possession of power that increased the tendency to
take action in the blackjack game rather than the lack of power
The results of Experiment 1 support our hypothesis that pos-
sessing power in one context leads to action in a subsequent,
unrelated context. Power led to action even when the position of
power was functionally irrelevant to the blackjack game. Occupy-
ing a position of power, when it involved controlling the direction,
evaluation, and rewarding of subordinates, led participants to take
a card in a vexing blackjack situation.2Nearly all of the partici-
pants who possessed power took a card. Although we have no
direct evidence that players calculated their exact odds, it turns out
that taking a card in this situation increases the odds of winning
(Keren & Wagenaar, 1985); power-induced action would, over
time, increase the overall wealth that the powerful obtained.
One possible limitation of Experiment 1 involves the nature of
our manipulation. Our manipulation of power, which is typical of
traditional operationalizations of power (e.g., Anderson & Ber-
dahl, 2002), involves requiring the powerful to make decisions that
determine the outcomes of other people, either by providing di-
rections during a task, controlling their access to resources, or by
simply evaluating their performance. Such manipulations have the
advantage of external validity, yet their rich social content intro-
duces the possibility of a number of confounds. When individuals
have direct control over another person, displays of action could
1The experimenter failed to collect these data during one session (3
participants). Therefore, the degrees of freedom for this analysis differ
from the subsequent ones.
2One may note that our manipulation is not a pure manipulation of
social power in that it also involves elements of personal power (because
the managers’ evaluations of the subordinates will also affect their own
bonus). Thus, those in power have some control over both their own
outcome and those of the subordinates. The bulk of the manipulation
(coordinating and directing the work and evaluating others) is about
controlling others, and thus social power is more strongly emphasized.
Nonetheless, it is difficult to infer which of these elements, possessing
control over one’s own outcomes or having control over the outcomes of
others, is responsible for the effects. Although social power often carries
with it personal power, future research should explore the distinction
between personal and social power.
GALINSKY, GRUENFELD, AND MAGEE
result simply from role-prescribed behavior; people may interpret
that they should act or that their position of power requires them
to act, regardless of whether they are initially inclined to do so. In
addition, realistic and real-time operationalizations of power may
lead to differential levels of cognitive load (Fiske, 1993), and
deficits in cognitive capacity may decrease the ability to be delib-
erative and thereby inadvertently increase action. In Experiment 1,
those with power had to decide how they would direct, evaluate,
and distribute rewards, whereas subordinates were simply waiting
for direction and therefore were not cognitively taxed with mental
planning. This might have freed those in the low-power condition
to ruminate about their blackjack choice, while forcing those in the
high-power condition to act impulsively, not because of their
power per se, but because the consequences of doing so seemed
less important compared with the consequences of failing to plan
and manage effectively. By manipulating power through structural
positions and actual levels of control, action might simply be the
result of role-prescriptive behavior or decreased levels of cognitive
capacity, and not the inherent association between power and
action. To address these possible confounds, we devised an alter-
native procedure in which the experience of power was manipu-
lated while role-prescriptions and cognitive load were held
Experiment 2: The Annoying Fan
The first experiment demonstrated that power can lead to action
outside the realm of power. In the next experiments, we wanted to
build on this notion by examining whether remembering an inci-
dent in which power was experienced would bring forth a cluster
of action-oriented cognitions and behavior. Would simply remem-
bering possessing power be enough to lead people toward action?
If the association between power and action is as strong as we have
suggested it is, then it should persist even when the experience of
power is only recalled and not actually possessed.
To explore whether activating power increases the tendency
toward action, in Experiment 2 (as well as in Experiment 3), we
manipulated power by having participants recall a situation in
which they either possessed power over someone else, or in which
someone else possessed power over them. We assumed that this
manipulation would prime (i.e., activate) the concepts of high
power and low power, respectively. To the extent that an action
orientation is associated with high power, simply recalling an
experience in which power was possessed should lead to an action
orientation in a new context. Our experiential priming procedure—
remembering a personally relevant experience with social power—
allows us to prime power in a way that is meaningful to partici-
pants without differentially affecting the cognitive capacity or
role-prescribed norms of high- and low-power participants.
The next experiment was also designed to show that power
increases the correspondence between goals and desires on the one
hand and the performance of behaviors that would satisfy them on
the other; that is, power leads to the performance of goal-directed
acts. We created a situation in which individuals, regardless of
their power, would be motivated to remove an annoying stimulus,
but where it was unclear whether they were allowed to do so. We
predicted that priming power would increase the likelihood of
acting to remove the annoying stimulus.
In prior research there is little direct evidence that power in-
creases the performance of goal-directed actions, but there is some
evidence that power increases the link between internal psycho-
logical experience and observable behavior. These tests have taken
one of three forms. In the first form, the researcher measures a
stable individual psychological dimension (e.g., personality trait)
in high-power and low-power individuals, and then creates a
situation that should lead individuals high or low on the measured
dimension to behave in predictable, but different, ways. The as-
sociation between the individual difference measure and behavior
should be stronger in high-power individuals than in individuals
lacking in power (e.g., Chen et al., 2001). For example, the
personalities of high-status fraternity members reliably predict
self-reports of both positive and negative emotions, but no such
correspondence occurs for low-status members (Anderson et al.,
2001). Using this method, the behavior and feelings of the pow-
erful are more predictable compared with the powerless.
In the second type of investigation, there is no prediction about
the direction of the behavior, but more variance is expected in
high-power compared with low-power individuals. The logic in
this method is that powerful individuals should behave more
according to their idiosyncratic desires and needs than to the social
norms that might govern the situation, and, thus, their behavior
should be more variable than the behavior of low-power individ-
uals (e.g., Guinote et al., 2002).
In the third method, the researcher creates a situation in which
all individuals should want to behave in a particular way, yet the
situation makes it ambiguous whether or not the individuals can or
are allowed to behave in that way. In this method, the researcher
expects that a significantly higher proportion of high-power indi-
viduals will act to satisfy their needs compared with low-power
individuals. In an impressive demonstration of the increased at-
tention to personal desires and the inattention to social conventions
that power affords, Ward and Keltner (as cited in Keltner et al.,
2003) found that high-power participants, facing a limited supply
of cookies, ate more than low-power participants, and ate with
greater abandon: They were more likely to chew with their mouths
open and to get crumbs on their face and on the table. Gonzaga,
Keltner, Londahl, and Smith’s (2001) finding that power leads to
less inhibited flirting can also be characterized in this manner.
In Experiment 2, we chose to use the third method by inducing
discomfort in all participants through the use of an annoying
stimulus in the environment: a fan blowing directly onto the
participants. We also created the situation so that the purpose of
the fan to participants was unclear, thereby creating uncertainty
about whether it was permissible to take action against the fan by
moving it or turning it off. In contrast, Experiment 1 explicitly
confronted participants with the decision of whether to act. Thus
we were interested in whether those with power would engage in
action that would reduce their discomfort even when it was am-
biguous as to whether action was allowed.
To explore these issues, participants first completed a narrative
essay task that asked them to recall an experience in which they
either possessed power over another person or another person
possessed power over them. After completing this power prime
manipulation, participants were taken to another room to complete
a number of ostensibly unrelated tasks. The first task they com-
pleted in this room was a resource allocation task that was de-
signed to reinforce the power prime manipulation. In this room,
POWER TO ACTION
participants encountered a fan on the table that was blowing
directly at the chair where they were supposed to sit. This fan was
blowing at such a speed and at such close proximity to the
participants that it was quite annoying. We coded for whether
participants acted on the fan by moving it, turning it off, or
diverting its airflow in some way.
Participants were 66 (49 women and 17 men) undergraduate students
who participated for payment of $10 and entry into a $300 lottery.
Design and Procedure
The experiment involved two conditions, a high-power and a low-power
condition. Participants came in groups of 2 or 3 to the lab where they filled
out the experiential primes in which they were asked to recall a particular
incident in their lives. Those participants assigned to the high-power
condition were instructed as follows:
Please recall a particular incident in which you had power over
another individual or individuals. By power, we mean a situation in
which you controlled the ability of another person or persons to get
something they wanted, or were in a position to evaluate those
individuals. Please describe this situation in which you had power—
what happened, how you felt, etc.
Those participants assigned to the low-power condition were instructed
Please recall a particular incident in which someone else had power
over you. By power, we mean a situation in which someone had
control over your ability to get something you wanted, or was in a
position to evaluate you. Please describe this situation in which you
did not have power—what happened, how you felt, etc.
Participants were given a sheet of paper with 19 lines to complete this
task. Participants were unaware of the power prime manipulation that the
other participants in the session received. After completing this power-
priming task, they were each brought to separate rooms where they were
videotaped by a discreetly placed camera. Before entering the rooms, the
experimenter explained that they would be completing some more tasks
that would be described in packets of paper on the desks in the rooms. In
front of their seats, there were table fans blowing on them. The packets
instructed the participants to begin working on a resource allocation task.
The resource allocation task was designed to reinforce the power prime.
The participants who completed the high-power prime manipulation were
asked to allocate lottery tickets to themselves and another participant. They
were told the tickets would be entered into a lottery for a dinner coupon
worth $300 at a local restaurant. Participants who completed the low-power
prime were asked to predict the allocation decision that the high-power
person would make. Thus, the power manipulation consisted of two
parts—recalling a previous experience with power and engaging in a
resource allocation task. At the end of the experiment, each participant was
thoroughly debriefed and fully probed for suspicion. Not a single partici-
pant expressed any suspicion that the power manipulation and the depen-
dent measure were related.
Results and Discussion
One coder, who was blind to both condition and hypotheses,
categorized what type of relationship (e.g., manager–subordinate,
teacher–student) was described in the participants’ priming essays
(see the Appendix for a breakdown of the power relationships
described in the essays from Experiments 2 and 3). We also had
this coder rate all the power-prime essays from Experiments 2
and 3 for how much power the participant reported having using a
7-point Likert scale. We had a second coder rate 10% of the essays
(across Experiments 2 and 3) and the reliability was high (? ?
.94), and therefore we used the single coder’s ratings. As expected,
participants described themselves as having more power in the
high-power essays (M ? 5.85, SD ? 0.37) than in the low-power
essays (M ? 2.33, SD ? 0.74), t(57) ? 22.22, p ? .001.
Acting on the Fan
Data for 3 participants were missing because the experimenter
failed to turn on the videotape recorder for Room 2 on one of the
days. In addition, 2 participants were removed from the analyses
because of a procedural error, and 2 participants were removed for
not following the instructions. A coder who was blind to condition
analyzed the videotapes and recorded 1 when participants moved
the fan away, turned it off, or unplugged it, and 0 if they took no
action involving the fan. A significant effect of power emerged,
?2(1, N ? 59) ? 4.21, p ? .04.3High-power participants were
more than twice as likely to take action against the fan than to
ignore it (69% [n ? 18] vs. 31% [n ? 8]). This was not true for
low-power participants: less than half acted on the fan (42% [14 of
33]). Furthermore, we investigated each condition’s deviation
from chance likelihood (.5) of acting on the fan. A nonparametric
chi-square test showed that high-power participants significantly
deviated from chance likelihood of acting on the fan, ?2(1, N ?
26) ? 3.85, p ? .05, whereas low-power participants did not, ?2(1,
N ? 33) ? 0.75, p ? .38. The possession of power increased the
tendency toward acting on the fan, satisfying the goal of reducing
Relationship Between Power Primes and Acting on the
There is an alternative explanation for the results of Experi-
ment 2 that must be addressed. Perhaps people who recalled a time
in which they had power simply described greater amounts of
action in their essays. If this were the case, then acting on the fan
might simply be an example of semantic priming: Participants
described more action in their prime essays and then took more
action later on. To test for this alternative explanation, we also had
the essays coded for how much action was described using a
7-point Likert scale (a second coder rated 10% of the essays across
3There was also a significant interaction between sex of participant and
power, ?2(1, N ? 59) ? 4.25, p ? .04, such that men were more affected
by the power manipulation than were women. This interaction, however,
should be interpreted cautiously. Because the experiment was not designed
to test for sex effects, the total number of participants is very low in some
of the conditions (e.g., only 4 men in the high-power condition), which can
result in unstable effects. In addition, although there was no significant
interaction between sex of participant and power in Experiment 1, ?2(1,
N ? 32) ? 1.76, p ? .19, the pattern of data was in the opposite direction,
such that women were more affected by the power manipulation than were
men. Supplemental analyses are available from the authors upon request.
GALINSKY, GRUENFELD, AND MAGEE
Experiments 2 and 3 and the reliability was high [? ? .83], and
therefore we used the single coder’s ratings). High-power prime
essays (M ? 4.27, SD ? 1.19) did indeed describe more action
than did low-power prime essays (M ? 3.45, SD ? 1.37),
t(57) ? 2.40, p ? .02. However, we hypothesized that it is the
amount of power that participants recalled possessing in their
essays, not simply the amount of action described, that should
positively predict action against the fan. Therefore, we regressed
acting on the fan on two predictors: essay action and participant
power. Participant power was significantly and positively related
to acting on the fan (? ? .53, p ? .01), whereas essay action was
significantly and negatively related to acting on the fan (? ? ?.76,
p ? .01). Only participant power was a positive predictor of acting
on the fan. In fact, the more action that was described in the essays,
the less likely the participants were to act on the annoying stim-
ulus. The alternative explanation that semantic priming of action
can account for the results did not find any support. Rather, as in
the first experiment, power increased the tendency toward action.
Activating high power increased taking action to remove an ob-
trusive object, an annoying fan, even when the permissibility of
taking such action was ambiguous.
Experiment 3: Corruptibility and Responsibility in Action
The results from Experiment 2 found that those with power are
more likely to act in ways that satisfy their current desires, to act
in an apparently self-interested way. Although the consequences of
removing an annoying fan did not benefit power holders at others’
expense, the effects of power are often regarded with a more grim
view: It has been widely observed that power can lead to corrup-
tion and ultimately produce antisocial consequences. Much empir-
ical research supports this claim. Power leads to egocentrism, a
preoccupation with the concerns of the self at the expense of
awareness of others’ motives (Kipnis, 1972). Power possessors are
less accurate than those dispossessed of power in estimating the
interests and positions of others (Keltner & Robinson, 1996, 1997).
It has been argued that the inaccuracy of men, compared with
women, in judging others’ emotions may also be related to the
greater power that men possess in society (see Keltner et al., 2003).
This egocentric focus on one’s own desires can even lead to such
malfeasant social behaviors as sexual harassment (Bargh et al.,
1995). In addition to an egocentric focus, power also leads to
stereotyping (Fiske, 1993; Goodwin et al., 2000). Those with
power spend more time paying attention to stereotype-consistent
information than individuating information, and ultimately base
their impressions of others on social-category information (Good-
win et al., 2000; but see Overbeck & Park, 2001). Fiske (1993)
pointed out that because stereotypes help to maintain one person’s
control over another, power promotes stereotyping, and stereotyp-
ing helps maintain power. All in all, this literature presents a dim
view of power, equating it with a state of depravity.
In contrast, there are recent studies suggesting that power can
also have prosocial effects. These positive effects of power can
emerge from the person or the situation. Individuals with a com-
munal orientation become more generous and beneficent when
possessing power compared with those with an exchange orienta-
tion (Chen et al., 2001). When the situation demands that the
power holder take responsibility for the welfare of another person,
high-power individuals are more likely to individuate and person-
alize (Brewer, 1988) individuals lacking power (Overbeck & Park,
2001). In each of these cases, when power increased feelings of
responsibility for another individual, the powerful acted in ways to
assist that individual.
Consistent with the results of the first two experiments, we
contend that those with power will heed the call to action. Whether
power corrupts or elevates may depend on whether displays of
action in a situation will, by definition, produce social ills or social
benefits. Social dilemmas are an ideal context to explore the
tendency for power to lead to action irrespective of its prosocial or
antisocial consequences because, depending on how the dilemma
is framed, action can be construed in either prosocial or antisocial
terms. A social dilemma refers to a situation in which a group of
individuals must choose between maximizing self-interest and
maximizing collective interest. Typically, the cumulative result of
individual (and self-interested) decisions can result in collective
disaster. Although it typically appears to be more profitable and
advantageous to maximize one’s self-interest, when all members
of the group choose to maximize self-interest, everyone will be
worse off than if the collective interest had been maximized.
Social dilemmas come in two different forms. In a commons
dilemma, individuals must decide how much of a shared resource
they wish to take for themselves: Commons dilemmas are a
problem of consumption. For example, contemporary fishers wish
to harvest as many fish as possible to increase their short-term
profits, but if everyone chooses this strategy then the entire supply
of fish could be exhausted. If people show restraint and only
harvest a modest amount of fish, then the shared resource will
remain available for future use, leaving everyone better off. In a
public-goods dilemma, individuals must decide whether and how
much to contribute to create or retain a common resource: Public-
goods dilemmas are a problem of contribution. For example, each
individual may prefer not to donate money to public radio yet still
reap the rewards of listening to the enriching programs. However,
if everyone fails to contribute, then the radio station will cease to
exist and everyone will be worse off.
Brewer and Kramer (1986) noted that these two different types
of social dilemmas, commons and public goods, are structurally
and functionally equivalent. That is, in both cases individuals must
choose between having more for themselves versus acting in the
collective interest but at some personal cost; individuals give up an
immediate benefit to sustain a resource for collective use. How-
ever, Brewer and Kramer also demonstrated that the two types of
dilemmas, despite being structurally equivalent, are not psycho-
logically equivalent. Because a public-goods dilemma requires that
one must give up an already possessed resource, people show
greater self-interest here than in a commons dilemma, in which one
must forgo a potential gain (Brewer & Kramer, 1986); this finding
is consistent with prospect theory, in which losses are more painful
than gains (Kahneman & Tversky, 1984; Tversky & Kahneman,
We contend that the two types of dilemmas also differ in terms
of the consequences of taking action. In the commons dilemmas,
action involves taking from and potentially depleting a shared
resource. In the public-goods dilemma, action involves contribut-
ing to and potentially sustaining a shared resource. Because we
believe that power increases the tendency to take action, in what-
ever way action is defined and suggested in a given context, we
hypothesized that power would ironically increase both taking in a
POWER TO ACTION
commons dilemma and giving in a public-goods dilemma. In a
commons dilemma, those experiencing power would appear to
perpetuate power’s reputation as a scourge and blight, exhibiting
greater antisocial tendencies than those with less power. In a
public-goods dilemma, however, those experiencing power would
resemble admired public figures who create prosocial outcomes
that would otherwise not materialize. We predicted that power
would increase action independent of its social consequences.
Because the first experiment measured baseline action at a
different time than the experimental conditions and the second
experiment did not use an experimental control condition, it is not
entirely clear whether activating high power increases action rel-
ative to others or whether activating lack of power decreases action
relative to others. In the final experiment we added a control
condition to compare these two alternative hypotheses. In addition,
because the power manipulation in the second experiment con-
sisted of two parts, it is unclear whether merely thinking about an
experience with power is enough to increase tendencies toward
action. Therefore, the power manipulation in the final experiment
only consisted of having participants recall either a high- or
low-power experience. Finally, we sought to rule out the possibil-
ity that mood, which might be affected by power, was accounting
for our findings. That is, our power manipulations might have
increased positive mood, and it could be these increases in positive
mood that lead to action (Isen, 1987). To test the possibility that an
action orientation is simply an incidental byproduct of positive
mood, rather than a response to the experience of power, per se, we
assessed participants’ mood at the end of the experiment.
Participants were 155 undergraduate business students who participated
as part of a class exercise. The classes were comprised of 73% men and
Design and Procedure
The experiment involved a 3 (power: high power vs. low power vs.
control) ? 2 (type of dilemma: public goods vs. commons) between-
subjects design. Participants were run in two large groups, one for each of
the dilemmas. Both dilemmas were run on the same day. Participants were
given a packet that comprised the experimental materials and were told that
they would engage in a number of different tasks. The first task comprised
the experimental manipulation of power. Participants in the high-power
and low-power conditions completed the same narrative essay task from
Experiment 2. Participants in the control condition were told the following:
“Please recall your day yesterday. Please describe your experiences yes-
terday—what happened, how you felt, etc.” Each participant was given 19
lines to complete the essay.
After writing their essays, participants went on to the resource dilemma
task. In the commons dilemma task, participants were given (both verbally
and in written form) the following instructions (see Brewer & Kramer,
There are many resources of a fixed amount, such as electricity, that
are available to everyone and whose existence depends on people not
consuming too much. If enough people are reasonable about how
much they consume, these resources will continue to be available. If
enough people consume too much, then they will cease to exist.
Obviously, the less each person consumes, the more there is for
everyone. But, of course, it is possible to consume so much that there
is none for everyone, including yourself. Thus, each person must
decide whether to take from the resource and, if so, how much to take.
Today you will participate in two successive trials of a situation like
the one described above. You and the other participants here today
share access to a common pool of 1000 points. On each trial, you
should decide how many points you want to take for yourself. This
amount can be between 0 and 10. You should try to accumulate as
many points as possible for yourself because this will determine how
many lottery points you will receive. Two people will receive a $50
gift certificate for a local restaurant from a lottery drawing that will be
weighted by the number of points each individual has. But you should
also be careful not to take too much, because if there are no more
points in the common pool at the end of two trials, then nobody,
including yourself, can receive the gift certificate. The common pool
size for the second trial will be determined by two things that will
mimic uncertainty in the real world: the amount you all take in the
first trial and a replenishment factor. First, we will take the average of
the amount of points taken by a random sample of 10 people, and
multiply that number by the total number of people here today as the
amount of points that was taken from the common pool. Second, the
pool will be replenished by a randomly selected percentage of the
common pool amount between 1% and 10%.
On the next page participants were asked, “How many points do you
wish to take from the resource pool?” (Trial 1). The bottom of the page
instructed participants to wait to turn the page until after they were given
information about replenishment. The experimenter recorded the responses
of 10 of the individuals and supposedly computed the replenishment factor
(in actuality the size of the pool after Trial 1 was fixed in advance).
Participants were told that the pool now stood at 486 points. The next page
asked them to again record how many points they wished to take from the
resource pool (Trial 2).
In the public-goods dilemma task, participants were given the following
There are many public services and resources, such as public radio
stations, which are available to everyone and whose existence depends
upon voluntary contributions. If enough people contribute enough
money, these resources will continue to be available. If voluntary
contributions fall below a certain point, however, they will be under-
supported and cease to exist. Obviously, the more people who con-
tribute, the less each has to give. But, of course, it is possible to
contribute nothing and still enjoy the resource since access is open to
all. On the other hand, if everyone fails to contribute, or if the total
contributions are insufficient, the resource cannot be sustained and no
one will enjoy access to it. Thus, each person must decide whether to
contribute to the resource and, if so, how much to contribute. Today
you will participate in two successive trials of a situation like the one
described above. At the current time (i.e., before the start of the first
trial) the pool stands at ?1000 points. At the start of each of the two
trials, your personal account will be credited with 10 points. The
amount of points you have in your personal account at the end of the
session will determine how many lottery points you will receive. Two
people will receive a $50 gift certificate from a lottery drawing that
will be weighted by the number of points each individual has. On each
trial, you should decide how many of your points you want to return
to the common pool. If there are less than 0 points in the common pool
at the end of two trials [i.e., if fewer than 1000 points have been
returned to the pool], then nobody, including yourself, can receive the
gift certificate. The common pool size for the second trial will be
determined by two things that will mimic uncertainty in the real
4We were not able to match the responses with the sex of participants.
GALINSKY, GRUENFELD, AND MAGEE
world: the amount you all contribute in the first trial and a replenish-
ment factor. First, we will take the average of the amount of points
returned by a random sample of 10 people, and multiply that number
by the total number of people here today as the amount of points that
was returned to the common pool. Second, the pool will be replen-
ished by a randomly selected percentage of the common pool amount
between 1% and 10%.
On the next page participants were asked, “How many points do you
wish to return to the resource pool?” (Trial 1). The bottom of the page
instructed participants to wait to turn the page until after they were given
information about replenishment. The experimenter recorded the responses
of 10 of the individuals and supposedly computed the replenishment factor
(as in the commons dilemma, the size of the pool after Trial 1 was fixed in
advance). Participants were told that the pool now stood at ?486 points.
The next page asked them to again record how many points they wished to
return to the resource pool (Trial 2).
After completing the resource task, participants were asked to rate their
current mood using a 7-point Likert scale, anchored at very bad and very
good (see Bless, Mackie, & Schwarz, 1992).
The prime essays were coded for how much power participants
reported having using a 7-point Likert scale. As expected, partic-
ipants described themselves as having more power in the high-
power prime essays (M ? 5.36, SD ? 1.09) than in the low-power
prime essays (M ? 2.19, SD ? 0.82), t(88) ? 15.46, p ? .001.5
Taking and Contributing to the Resource Pool
We hypothesized that those participants primed with high power
would demonstrate a tendency toward action. For the commons
dilemma, action meant taking from a resource. For the public-
goods dilemma, action constituted contributing to a common re-
source. Thus we expected that participants primed with high power
would both take more and give more to a commonly shared
resource than participants primed with low power or those in the
control condition. To test this hypothesis we submitted the points
that participants either gave to or took from the resource to a 3
(power: high power vs. low power vs. control) ? 2 (type of
dilemma: public goods vs. common) ? 2 (trial: 1 vs. 2) mixed-
model analysis of variance (ANOVA) with repeated measures on
the third factor. There was a significant effect of power, F(2,
149) ? 4.79, p ? .01. Power did not interact with social dilemma
(F ? 1). Thus, type of dilemma did not moderate the effect of
power on action.6Activating high power (M ? 6.31, SD ? 2.53)
increased the tendency to both take from and contribute to a
commonly shared resource compared with participants in the con-
trol condition (M ? 5.39, SD ? 2.28), t(152) ? 2.04, p ? .04, and
participants primed with low power (M ? 5.06, SD ? 2.05),
t(152) ? 2.69, p ? .01. The control condition and the low-power
condition did not significantly differ from each other (t ? 1).
Overall, in the commons dilemma, the resource pool was depleted,
and in the public-goods dilemma, the pool failed to rise above zero
points. That is, in both dilemmas the resource ceased to exist after
the second round.
The mood of participants was not significantly altered
by the power manipulation, F(2, 146) ? 1.16, p ? .36. Although
mood and action were correlated, r(152) ? .21, p ? .01, covarying
out the effect of mood did not appreciably decrease the effect of
the power manipulation; the effect of the power manipulation
remained significant, F(2, 145) ? 3.43, p ? .03.7
Relationship between power primes and acting on the resource.
As in Experiment 2, we had the essays coded for how much action
was described using a 7-point Likert scale. The coder also counted
the number of verbs implying action and inhibition in the essays
(see Semin & Fiedler, 1988). Active verbs included both interpre-
tive and descriptive action verbs (e.g., help, cheat, talk), but
inhibition verbs included only interpretive action verbs (e.g., stop,
block) (Semin & Fiedler, 1988). Both categories excluded state
verbs (e.g., like, hate). These measures appeared to be less sensi-
tive to the amount and intensity of action that the essays conveyed
compared with the 7-point Likert scale, as there was not a signif-
icant difference between the high-power (M ? 5.55, SD ? 3.63)
and low-power conditions (M ? 5.66, SD ? 2.86) for action verbs,
t(89) ? 1, or for inhibition verbs (M ? 0.11, SD ? 0.31 and
M ? 0.30, SD ? 0.82, respectively) t(89) ? 1.47, ns. Analyses
using these categories as proportions of the total words written
were substantively and statistically similar. Thus, we chose to
present a more generous test of the alternative explanation that
semantic priming of action accounted for our results by using the
7-point Likert-scale rating.
As in Experiment 2, high-power prime essays (M ? 3.13,
SD ? 1.28) described more action than did low-power prime
essays (M ? 2.45, SD ? .90), t(89) ? 2.88, p ? .01. We regressed
acting on the resource on two predictors: essay action and partic-
ipant power. Participant power was significantly related to acting
on the resource (? ? .28, p ? .01), whereas essay action was not
(? ? .08, p ? .43). As in Experiment 2, participant power was a
better predictor of acting on the resource than was essay action.
Given the consistent pattern that the amount of power, and not the
amount of action expressed in the prime essays, was a positive
predictor of action, we feel confident that the alternative explana-
tion—that increased levels of action were produced through se-
mantic priming of action—cannot account for our results.
5We did not code the essays from the control condition for amount of
participant power because very few of the control participants described
situations that were relevant to social power. Therefore all of the analyses
involving the content of the prime essays in Experiment 3 were only
conducted on the high- and low-power conditions.
6Although the interaction between resource dilemma and power did not
ANOVAs for each type of social dilemma. For the public-goods dilemma,
the one-way ANOVA was significant, F(2, 75) ? 3.78, p ? .03. High
power led to more giving (M ? 5.38, SD ? 2.56) than did low power
(M ? 3.84, SD ? 1.71) or the control condition (M ? 4.14, SD ? 1.90),
t(75) ? 2.72, p ? .01. For the commons dilemma, the one-way ANOVA
was not significant, F(2, 74) ? 1.29, p ? .28. However, the data were in
the predicted direction, with high power taking more (M ? 7.20,
SD ? 2.18) than did low power (M ? 6.33, SD ? 1.54) or the control
condition (M ? 6.70, SD ? 1.90), t(74) ? 1.48, p ? .14.
7In addition, a Sobel test demonstrated that the effect of power on acting
on the social dilemma was not significantly reduced when mood was also
entered (z ? 1, p ? .83).
POWER TO ACTION
In Experiment 3, power increased action regardless of whether
that action expanded or depleted a shared resource. In fact, had all
the participants in the commons dilemma not been in the high-
power condition, then the resource would have persisted beyond
the second trial. However, had all the participants in the public-
goods dilemma been in the high-power condition, then the re-
source would nearly have been retained. Power is linked to the
depletion of a valued resource in one case and the continuation of
a valued resource in the other case. A community of high-power
individuals could be a condemned community suffering depriva-
tion or a confident community reveling in an ever-expanding
public resource. Which community—the one destined for depri-
vation or the one destined for prosperity—appears to depend on
how the resource is maintained.
It is interesting to note the asymmetry of action and disinhibition
in the two tasks. In the commons dilemma, the person who
demonstrates action overcomes the inhibitory effects of norms of
personal restraint. In the public-goods dilemma, action overcomes
the inhibitory effects of norms of self-interest (in many situations
there are norms promoting displays of self-interest; Miller, 1999;
Miller & Ratner, 1998). Although these effects, taking and giving,
are in direct opposition to each other, both can be seen as repre-
senting disinhibited action that is freed from social conventions.
These results also provide clear evidence that priming high
power increases a tendency toward action rather than the dispos-
session of power leading to a lack of action. Being primed with
high power led participants to both take more from and give more
to a commonly shared resource compared with both a control
condition and a low-power prime condition. In addition, the effect
of power on these actions occurred independently of participants’
current mood state, suggesting that the relationship between power
and action is not simply produced through alterations in mood
(though it should be noted that because the mood measure was
taken after the social dilemma it might be the case that action
affected mood rather than mood influencing action).
The three experiments presented here provide converging evi-
dence not only that power and action are related but, more pre-
cisely, that the possession and experience of power leads directly
to the taking of action. This relationship has been theorized by
others (e.g., Keltner et al., 2003), but it has not been empirically
demonstrated directly until now. In Experiment 1, placing partic-
ipants into a managerial role (i.e., a structural position of power)
increased the tendency to take a card in a simulated game of
blackjack. This first experiment demonstrated that the possession
of power increases the tendency toward action even when the
power and the action are from two functionally independent con-
texts. The second experiment found that activating high power
increases manifestations of action in the service of personal de-
sires. High-power participants were more likely to act on an
annoying fan in a situation where it was unclear whether one was
permitted to do so. Finally, the third experiment provided strong
support for our hypothesis that power and action are related and,
contrary to conventional wisdom about corruption, action is not
always taken just in the service of self-interest. Simply remember-
ing an experience in which one possessed power increased the
tendency to act on a common social fund, regardless of whether
doing so had prosocial or antisocial consequences.
Across the experiments, power led to action irrespective of
whether the action dependent measure was dichotomous (Experi-
ments 1 and 2) or continuous (Experiment 3), and regardless of
whether participants were explicitly confronted with the choice of
acting or not acting (Experiments 1 and 3) or whether the appli-
cability or permissibility of taking action was ambiguous (Exper-
iment 2). The relationship between power and action was observed
using two different manipulations of power (possessing structural,
hierarchical power and recalling an experience with power) and
multiple operationalizations of action, demonstrating the robust-
ness of the power–action association. Regardless of how power
and action were instantiated, power led to more manifestations of
In showing that power and action are causally related using
multiple manipulations of power, we also ruled out the possible
effects of a number of factors that are often naturally confounded
with power. The normative prescriptions of hierarchical roles and
differential levels of cognitive capacity have confused the inter-
pretation of many previous investigations into the effects of power
and would seem to be particularly problematic for exploring the
power–action association. By priming the experience of power
instead of manipulating the possession of power directly, we
eliminated the possible effects of cognitive load and role-
prescribed behavior as alternative explanations for our findings.
Kipnis (1972) suggested that possessing power transforms the
person and that power has metamorphic qualities. In two of the
three studies, those who possessed power or who were primed with
power deviated from a baseline/control condition, suggesting that
it is the presence of power rather than the absence of power that
drove the effects. Having and experiencing power leads to action
more than lacking power leads to inaction. Power is indeed a
catalyst to action.
The Power–Action Association
Why does power lead to action? We contend that the association
between power and action is ultimately functional (see Bargh,
1997, for a discussion of the functionality of automatic goal
activation). Power allows an individual to engage in actions that
can promote successful completion of goals and, ultimately, the
retention of power. For example, acting on annoyances in the
environment (e.g., removing an irritating fan) increases the quality
of one’s experience in that situation. This action orientation may
persist to areas in which action is not only beneficial to the power
holder but also to his or her community. A community of high-
power individuals may be a place where culture flourishes, with
exquisite museums and melodious symphony orchestras.
Considering why the power–action association exists also raises
the following question: Where does the power–action association
emerge from? The power–action association may be the product of
learning, of conditioning, of growing up in an environment that
encourages those in power to take action. If those in power are
expected to act and are rewarded for doing so, then a natural
association between power and action will develop over time, such
that activating power will activate the associated action orienta-
tion. This analysis suggests that in those cultures in which the
GALINSKY, GRUENFELD, AND MAGEE
powerful are not expected to act and are punished for doing so,
power should be associated with inaction, such that activating
power will lead to decreased displays of action. Thus, different
cultural norms for how power should be exercised may moderate
the relationship between power and action (see Chen et al., 2001).
Despite the multiplicity of instantiations of action and power,
we have only been able to provide some evidence for the hypoth-
esized mechanisms for our effects. As Keltner et al. (2003) sug-
gested, power activates the behavioral approach system, which
involves positive affect, perceptual attunement to rewards, and
goal-directed motor behavior. We go beyond this initial formula-
tion by arguing that the concept of power can be stored in memory
and can activate approach processes in situations unrelated to the
possession of power. Although we have attempted to rule out a
number of alternative explanations for our findings, it is possible
that power, and our manipulations of it, activated other contribut-
ing responses. Despite finding that the association between power
and action was not merely an incidental byproduct of increased
mood in the third experiment, positive affect as part of the behav-
ioral approach system might very well be one mechanism by
which power produces increased tendencies to act. In addition, the
single-item measure of mood in Experiment 3 may not provide the
most reliable test of whether positive mood is driving the effects of
power on action. Future research should use a multi-item measure
of mood that can also delineate the role of particular discrete
emotions in the effects of power on behavior.
Because power activates the behavioral approach system, in-
creased action in response to the possession and experience of
power could be the product of increased desire, or at least in-
creased attention to one’s desires. It is also possible that partici-
pants, in responding to our priming manipulation, considered a
model of how a person with or without power should behave, and
then attempted to behave in ways that are consistent with that
prototype. Similarly, the priming manipulation may have activated
self-knowledge and in doing so produced strivings for self-
consistency. These possibilities seem unlikely considering that
none of the participants noticed any connection between the prim-
ing manipulation and the dependent measure in Experiment 2, and
it is hard to imagine how strivings for self or prototype consistency
would both increase taking and giving to a social dilemma. How-
ever, these alternatives are worthy of further consideration and
future research would do well to elaborate, both empirically and
theoretically, on the relationship between power and action. Given
the variety of effects that activating the behavioral approach sys-
tem has, the road from power to action is surely multiply
Priming Power: Conceptual or Mind-Set Priming?
Our research raises questions about how power is represented
mentally: What gets activated when power is primed? The litera-
ture on priming has distinguished between conceptual priming and
mind-set priming (see Bargh & Chartrand, 2000). Conceptual
priming involves the activation of specific mental representations,
from traits to stereotypes to goals, which then serve as interpreta-
tive frames in the processing of subsequent information (Higgins,
1996). Once one concept is activated, associated concepts are also
triggered through spreading activation (Neely, 1977). Bargh et al.
(1995) and Chen et al. (2001) clearly saw power as a conceptual
prime. By exposing participants to words related to the possession
of power they show that specific, individualized goals that are
associated with power also are activated and then used as guides in
perception and behavior.
Mind-set priming, however, activates procedural knowledge.
What is primed is a way of thinking. Bargh and Chartrand (2000)
also distinguished mind-set priming from conceptual priming at
the methodological level. They noted that most studies of mind-set
priming involve having participants first intentionally use the
mental procedure in question rather than simply exposing partic-
ipants to words related to a particular construct. Thus, mind-sets
involve the nonconscious carryover of an intentionally pursued
mental procedure. For example, Gollwitzer, Heckhausen, and
Steller (1990) had participants first think either deliberatively (i.e.,
to weigh the pros and cons of initiating action with regard to an
unresolved personal problem) or to think implementally (i.e., to
plan the implementation of a chosen personal project), and then
they participated in a “second experiment” in which they com-
pleted half-finished fairy tales. Deliberative mind-set participants
tended to ascribe deliberative actions to the main character, from
contemplating courses of action to seeking advice; however, im-
plementation mind-set participants had their characters plunge
headfirst into action. Similarly, thinking counterfactually in one
context increases the tendency to (nonconsciously) use mental
simulation as a cognitive process when solving a variety of prob-
lems (Galinsky & Moskowitz, 2000; Kray & Galinsky, 2003).
Mind-set activation changes the processing rules at one’s disposal.
The particular priming procedure we have used in the current
experiments was directly adapted from the work of Gollwitzer et
al. (1990), and, methodologically, Bargh and Chartrand (2000)
would classify our priming procedure as one that activates a
mind-set. In addition, power seems more than simply the type of
interpretive frame that is often connected to conceptual priming;
rather, power seems to be a way to approach the world, of how and
not just what to think and act. Following our priming of power,
was the resultant action the consequence of a simple association
between power and action, and thus under the purview of concep-
tual priming? Or was it the result of power transforming the
processing rules and mental procedures that are used?
We have some suggestive evidence that conceptual priming of
the construct of power may not be sufficient to explain our results
and that the notion of mind-sets might need to be invoked. Both
Bargh et al. (1995) and Chen et al. (2001) activated the concept of
power by exposing participants to words related to the possession
of power. Therefore, in Experiment 3, we coded the power prime
essays for the number of words written that corresponded to the
possession of power (these words were adapted from the priming
procedures of Bargh et al. (1995) and Chen et al. (2001)—e.g.,
power, manager, influence, control, authority). If high-power par-
ticipants had exposed themselves to more words related to the
possession of power, then the concept of high power should be
more strongly activated in these participants (Bargh & Pietromo-
naco, 1982), which might then account for the level of action
taken. High-power prime essays, however, did not contain more
high power-related words than did low-power prime essays (t ?
1), nor were the number of high-power related words related to
action (t ? 1). Rather, what mattered for the amount of action
taken was how much power the person expressed possessing in the
power essays. Because high-power essays did not contain a greater
POWER TO ACTION
number or proportion of words related to the possession of power,
it seems unlikely that the effects on action were produced simply
through conceptual priming. Power is one concept that seems to
blur the line between conceptual and mind-set priming. By under-
standing what gets activated when people think about power, not
only will our understanding of power increase, but so too will our
understanding of the nature of priming effects in general.
Across two different manipulations of power—possessing and
priming power—and across a variety of instantiations of action, we
have established that power and action are intimately related.
Power leads directly to action. The possession of power can
increase a tendency toward action not only in the context in which
power is possessed, but also in later, unrelated contexts. This
action orientation is not inherently nefarious, as power increased
both giving to (prosocial action) and taking from (antisocial ac-
tion) a commonly shared resource. Power is not always corruptible
but at times commendable, exercised for the general common good
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POWER TO ACTION
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Revision received April 14, 2003
Accepted April 17, 2003 ?
Percent of Power Relationship Types Described by
Participants in Experiments 2 and 3
Type of power relationship%
form the category “Miscellaneous.”
Types of relationships that totaled less than 1% were aggregated to
GALINSKY, GRUENFELD, AND MAGEE