Abuse of Power: The Psychology of Abusive Relationships

This happens in almost every work and social environment: people are affected by the abuse of power in politics, business, scientific research and health care. It can also happen to friends and family. Either way, it is done by people in positions of authority – such as leaders, supervisors or managers – who have the power to make decisions that affect others. (Also Read: Warning Signs Of An Abusive Friendship And What To Do About It)

Are people attracted to positions of power simply because of them "Enjoy working hard for it"?(color box)
Are people attracted to positions of power simply because they “enjoy using it for its own sake”? (color box)

But psychologists say that if you learn to understand how power abusers think and behave — their common traits — you may be able to stop it before it happens to you.

What is abuse of power?

Abuse of power is when someone abuses their authority or superior position in a hierarchy to take advantage of, coerce, or harm others.

And it can lead to different types of abuse, such as psychological, physical, financial and sexual abuse.

It can affect the atmosphere in the work environment, reduce productivity and affect people’s mental health.

But abuse of power often goes unreported or unnoticed, especially when the abuser has high social status, prestige or influence.

Red flags to help you identify abuse of power

People who abuse power often use threats, insults, criticism, or coercion to get what they want. They lie and manipulate others.

They dominate conversations and situations and can often interrupt or talk over other people. They also want to control personal and professional relationships.

To avoid being exposed, power abusers often demand loyalty and confidentiality from others, but at the same time are secretive about their own behavior.

They may also have excessive or unreasonable demands or expectations.

Not only that, but those who abuse power show a lack of empathy and concern for the well-being of others or tend to dismiss or ignore their concerns. They may reject your perception of the situation and tell you what they see as the truth and how you feel, or refuse to accept any blame.

What can I do against abuse of power?

First, you should try to resist pressure to do anything that makes you feel uncomfortable. This is easier said than done because not everyone is able to do it for a range of social, economic or cultural factors.

So, if you can, say “no” and if you can’t, try to get help. Familiarize yourself with your organization’s policies on abuse of power, learn about healthy interactions with your peers and supervisors, and learn what types of interactions are appropriate and inappropriate. You may need to examine your own behavior.

“It empowers people to recognize quickly, easily, when power is being abused,” said Daniel Lazing, professor of psychology at the Technical University of Dresden in Germany.

Although it can be difficult, psychologists say it’s important, and it can help to speak up, report abuse of power, talk to colleagues, friends and family, or get help and advice from professionals.

Now that we’ve covered the basics, let’s dive deeper into the underlying psychology of power abuse.

Does power make good people bad?

Philosopher Lord Acton famously wrote in the 1800s that “power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.”

But more recently, studies have challenged the idea that power turns people into abusers, suggesting instead that power enhances existing traits in people.

“Power is the ability to influence and change the state of mind of the people around you,” said Dacher Keltner, a psychology professor at the University of California, Berkeley.

People with power may feel less compassionate toward others and prioritize their own interests and desires, Keltner said. It can reduce a person’s ability to empathize.

But it can also make them more impulsive or antisocial.

In a paper published in 2017, Anna Guinotte, a professor of social cognition at University College London, wrote that power increases a person’s confidence, their optimism, their sense of self-expression and lowers their inhibitions.

The Stanford Prison Experiment

A famous study on the abuse of power is called the Stanford Prison Experiment. Conducted in the 1970s, the experiment put student volunteers in the role of prisoners or guards.

Over time, the students assigned the role of guard became increasingly disrespectful, aggressive, and indifferent to the inmates and their welfare.

This suggests that power has turned the guards into bad guys. But when the researchers took a second look at the results, they proposed that rather than power leading to abuse, it might be that people with existing, high tendencies to abuse were attracted to participate in the experiment in the first place.

“Some people just enjoy having power and using it for the sake of it,” Leasing said.

Deep psychological symptoms in abuse of power

Researchers reanalyzing the Stanford Prison Experiment reported that volunteers scored high on traits such as narcissism, Machiavellianism, aggression, authoritarianism, and social dominance, but low on empathy and benevolence.

Research has shown that there is a correlation between narcissistic personalities and tendencies to abuse power and aggression.

And low scores for empathy and benevolence are generally associated with aggressive forms of abuse.

But Leasing said psychologists don’t fully agree on the meaning of Machiavellianism and narcissism. Some psychologists argue that they may simply be a key trait, often called the D factor – dark for D.

Power abusers may show a lack of remorse or guilt for their actions.

Power abusers can be authoritarian and insecure

Complicating matters further is that power abusers may exhibit contradictory symptoms.

They may have a rigid, hierarchical worldview and a desire for control and dominance over others. They do not like to disagree with people or criticize them and may use threats or coercion to consolidate power. These are common symptoms of authoritarianism, a personality trait.

At the same time, they can show insecurity. They may feel that they are not good enough for the job or are so afraid of losing power that they try harder to assert a sense of control and authority.

But not all people who exhibit such symptoms are abusive, and some people who do not have these symptoms may actually be power abusers. One thing experts agree on is that you can’t say for sure.

Edited by: Zulfiqar Abbani

Leave a Comment