How does our level of power affect the way we think, feel, and behave?


In “The Social Distance Theory of Power” (Magee & Smith, 2013), we articulate a broad model of how proximal effects of power on social distance and thought processes should have certain cognitive, motivational, and behavioral effects. The theory begins with the premise that because having power involves being relatively independent from others, it should increase the social distance from others that an individual feels. This distance, according to Construal Level Theory (Trope & Liberman, 2010), should lead to the use of higher-level construals and more abstract information processing. High-level construals of an object, person, or event capture its superordinate, central features and thus convey its general meaning. Individuals must employ abstract thinking to extract these essential features. In contrast, low-level construals consist of subordinate, peripheral features and thus convey what is unique or specific. For example, “having fun” is a higher-level construal of “playing sports,” whereas “playing soccer indoors” is a lower-level construal of the same event. 

Because high power increases social distance, it should be associated with higher-level construals and more abstract thinking relative to low power. We demonstrated this link between power and abstract thinking in seven experiments (Smith & Trope, 2006). This paper’s finding of an association between power and abstract thinking has been explored, confirmed, and expanded by myself and other researchers (e.g., Huang, Galinsky, Gruenfeld, & Guillory, 2011; Magee, Milliken, & Lurie, 2010; Smith, Wigboldus, & Dijksterhuis, 2008; Stel, van Dijk, Smith, van Dijk, & Djalal, 2012).

According to the Social Distance Theory of Power, some consequences of power follow from its effect on social distance, while others follow from its effect on abstract thinking. My research program explores and explains both of these paths. First, I am exploring the connection between power and social distance (e.g., Smith & Hofmann, 2016; Kunstman, Fitzpatrick, & Smith, in press). Second, I am exploring how greater power promotes abstract thinking (e.g., Smith, Smallman, & Rucker, 2016; Smith & Trope, 2006). This connection between power and abstract thinking has implications for powerholder’s thinking and behavior in various domains, such as decision-making (Smith, Dijksterhuis, & Wigboldus, 2008) and goal pursuit (Karremans & Smith, 2010; Smith, Jostmann, Galinsky, & van Dijk, 2008; Zhang & Smith, in press). 

Although many researchers, including myself, have claimed that power is a fundamental part of human relations, little is known about power in daily life. In our recent paper (Smith & Hofmann, 2016), Wilhelm Hofmann and I both investigate the prevalence and correlates of power in people’s natural environments and test hypotheses derived from major theories of power in these settings. We used experience sampling to repeatedly assess people’s power perceptions in daily life—their subjective feelings of power (how powerless or powerful they felt) and their positional power (whether they were in a low- or high-power position or no power situation at all)—as well as details about their situation and their affect, cognition, and interpersonal feelings. These data provide a rich picture of the everyday experience of power, showing, for example, that high-power positions are not reserved only for the privileged few. Our data also offer key caveats to present conceptualizations of power, especially highlighting the impact of low-power experiences and the important role of responsibility in power’s effects.

How do our words and actions affect how powerful we feel? How powerful other people think we are?


Determining one’s level of power relative to others is a critical task because people use these judgments to determine how they should behave and relate to others. In multiple lines of research, I explore how small changes in thought and behavior alter how powerful people feel and how powerful people perceive others to be. For example, thinking and speaking abstractly make individuals feel more powerful (Smith, Wigboldus, & Dijksterhuis 2008) and lead them to be seen as more powerful by others (Wakslak, Smith, & Han, 2014). Such research, by revealing bidirectional relationships between power and various behaviors, sheds new light on how power hierarchies may be nonconsciously perpetuated. It also suggests avenues through which individuals may rise in rank. For example, it appears that dominant laughter may be employed by low-status individuals in some contexts to gain status without encountering the usual penalties associated with behaving “beyond one’s rank” (Oveis, Spectre, Smith, Liu, & Keltner, 2016).

How well represented are women in different workplaces, particularly in positions of power? What affects this representation?


I have a general interest in helping more members of underrepresented groups achieve leadership positions, focusing on the lack of female leaders in many fields. To better understand the position of women within my own field of social and personality psychology, Camille Johnson, Chunlei Wang, and I assessed gender representation in symposia over 13 years of the Society for Personality and Social Psychology’s (SPSP) Annual Convention, the largest conference for social and personality psychology (Johnson, Smith, & Wang, 2017). We found that the gender of the chairs organizing a symposium significantly influenced the gender makeup of the symposium: When men chaired a symposium, about a third of the invited speakers were women, whereas when women chaired a symposium, about half the invited speakers were women.