Breaking rules makes you seem powerful

Breaking the rules to rise to power: how norm violators gain power in the eyes of others

From Social Psychological and Personality Science 

When people have power, they act the part. Powerful people smile less, interrupt others, and speak in a louder voice. When people do not respect the basic rules of social behavior, they lead others to believe that they have power. People with power have a very different experience of the world than people without it.

In this study a group who had read stories, watched a video and some who had experienced a constructed scenario in the lab, were observed by researchers to identify the reactions to rule followers and rule breakers. “Norm violators are perceived as having the capacity to act as they please” write the researchers. Power may be corrupting, but showing the outward signs of corruption makes people think you’re powerful.


Powerful people often act at will, even if the resulting behavior is inappropriate—hence the famous proverb “power corrupts.” Here, we introduce the reverse phenomenon—violating norms signals power. Violating a norm implies that one has the power to act according to one’s own volition in spite of situational constraints, which fuels perceptions of power. Four studies support this hypothesis. Individuals who took coffee from another person’s can (Study 1), violated rules of bookkeeping (Study 2), dropped cigarette ashes on the floor (Study 3), or put their feet on the table (Study 4) were perceived as more powerful than individuals who did not show such behaviors. The effect was mediated by inferences of volitional capacity, and it replicated across different methods (scenario, film clip, face-to-face interaction), different norm violations, and different indices of power (explicit measures, expected emotions, and approach/inhibition tendencies). Implications for power, morality, and social hierarchy are discussed.

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Article details
Van Kleef, G., Homan, A., Finkenauer, C., Gundemir, S., & Stamkou, E. (2011). Breaking the Rules to Rise to Power: How Norm Violators Gain Power in the Eyes of Others Social Psychological and Personality Science DOI: 10.1177/1948550611398416

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