Does Breaking Rules Make You Appear Powerful?

Last Updated Jul 8, 2011 9:11 AM EDT

Imagine this: you're in a waiting room politely flipping through out-of-date magazines when another person walks in, nonchalantly puts their bag on a table and helps themselves to a pot of coffee that's clearly marked as for the staff. How do you view this individual?

Rude, might be your first answer, but a recent series of studies out of Dutch universities suggest that even while we view rule breakers as less polite, we also see them as more powerful.

Previous research has shown (as does life experience) that those with more clout are often able to break rules with greater impunity, but the researchers out of Amsterdam set out to the test the inverse idea -- not that power gives you the freedom to break rules, but that breaking rules gives you power (or at least the perception of it).

Their series of four studies appears in Social Psychological and Personality Science and was recently written up on the British Psychological Society's Occupational Digest blog. To test their hypothesis, the researchers presented study participants with two written scenarios, one narrating the coffee snatching behavior described in the first paragraph and another telling the tale of a bookkeeper who brushes aside a trainee's concerns about an anomaly in a financial report. The participants then decided how well various adjectives described the rules breakers, while a control group was asked to rate a similar scenario with a more polite protagonist. Unsurprisingly, rule breakers were seen as ruder, but they were also definitely rated as more powerful.

Maybe we just find rule breakers powerful on the page, you might object, so the researchers also tested our reaction to renegades captured on video. They came to the same conclusion -- viewers didn't like the guy in the video ashing on the floor or putting his feet up on a chair, but they did see him as more powerful than when he behaved politely.

The conclusion: powerful people break more rules and rule breakers are seen as more powerful, which suggests a nasty feedback loop, according to the researchers:
Because power leads to behavioral disinhibition, the powerful are more likely to violate norms. Doing so in turn leads other people to perceive them as powerful, as we have demonstrated. As individuals thus gain power, their behavior becomes even more liberated, possibly leading to more norm violations, and thus evoking a self-reinforcing process. This vicious cycle... may play a role in the emergence and perpetuation of a multitude of undesirable social and organizational behaviors such as fraud, sexual harassment, and violence.
What's the takeaway for non-psychologists? There's little chance that you can do much as an individual to prevent the powerful from breaking rules, but you can watch out for the other half of the cycle. Do you unwittingly view rule breakers in your office as more powerful? Is it time to stop seeing this disregard for people and procedures as showing authority and call out rudeness for what it is?

Read More on BNET: (Image courtesy of Flickr user magerleagues, CC 2.0)
  • Jessica Stillman On Twitter»

    Jessica lives in London where she works as a freelance writer with interests in green business and tech, management, and marketing.

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