When individuals engage in social interaction, regardless of the relationship they have with each other and the context within which it occurs, power and dominance are fundamental dimensions that both shape and are shaped by communication. Studies of how people think about and judge their social relationships have consistently demonstrated the importance of a dominance dimension. People use this dimension to judge and experience their social relationships and the communication that occurs within them (Berger 1994; Ng & Bradac 1993). Judgments concerning who is dominant or submissive or who is “in control” easily come to mind, whether the judgments are made during or after a specific interaction episode or in an ongoing relationship consisting of multiple episodes.
These judgments may have substantial consequences. For example, people who consistently display dominant or submissive actions in their social commerce with others over time may be judged to have dominant or submissive personalities by those who interact with them. Not only are power and dominance fundamental features of social interaction among humans, dominance hierarchies are legion in the social behavior of many animal species. Even when group members consciously strive to have “equal” amounts of power and “equal” status, dominance hierarchies emerge over time. Consequently, understanding how social interaction works requires attention to the role that social power and dominance play in its conduct.
Perspectives On Power And Dominance
The concepts of power and dominance may be viewed from at least two perspectives: the individual and the relationship. Everyday parlance frequently reflects the individual perspective, as when people say, “She is an extremely powerful person” or “He is very controlling.” Such assertions imply that power is an attribute possessed by the individual and that one can have more or less of it. However, many power theorists have argued that power is more fruitfully viewed as a characteristic of a relationship. Individual A may indeed attempt to influence individual B during the course of a particular social encounter; however, individual B may resist individual A’s influence attempts to the point that A fails to influence B. Moreover, there is the possibility that individual B may exert counterinfluence on individual A to the point that individual A is influenced. Consequently, social power is not simply a matter of attempting to influence others; it also involves social actors’ ability to overcome resistance from those they are attempting to influence. During the thrust and parry of social intercourse, control struggles may develop that eventuate in interpersonal conflict.
Although the relationship view of power is probably more useful than is the individual perspective for understanding how power dynamics play out during social interactions, considerable research has examined the degree to which individual personality dispositions such as dominance and power motivation influence individuals’ communicative conduct in social situations. In addition, a second research tradition has examined the ways in which communicative conduct in social situations influences observers’ attributions of power to individual social actors. This approach ignores the personality dispositions of individual social actors and focuses on the relationships between communication and perceptions of power and dominance. The question addressed in this research tradition concerns the relationships between specific features of verbal and nonverbal communication and observers’ judgments of the degree to which social actors are dominant. Each of these traditions is considered in turn.
Powerful Personalities And Their Communication
A considerable amount of research has sought to understand the relationships between such personality dispositions as dominance and need for power and the behaviors individuals display while communicating with others. In the typical study, individuals first complete personality measures designed to assess their level of dominance or power motivation and are then placed in a group discussion situation. Video recordings of the discussion are analyzed to determine the frequency with which each group member participated in the discussion, the average length of time they spoke, how frequently they paused while speaking, the number of times they interrupted other group members, and how loudly they spoke. Each of these measures is a potential indicator of dominance. In general, such studies have found that individuals who speak frequently and for longer times, pause less frequently when they speak, interrupt other group members more, and speak more loudly tend to score higher on personality measures of dominance than do people who score in the opposite direction on these communication parameters (Berger 1994). Thus, individual predispositions for dominance can be reflected in these nonverbal behaviors.
Related research on power motivation has produced similar findings (Winter 1973). Individuals with high power motivation levels seek to exercise influence over others. They define their social relationships in terms of power, and the successful exercise of power is their primary goal. Individuals with high power motivation gain power by making themselves visible to others and maintain power by surrounding themselves with loyal followers who are themselves not highly visible. Consistent with these power strategies, students with high power motivation were found to write more letters to their campus newspaper and be more likely to have their name posted on their dormitory room doors than their counterparts with low power motivation counterparts. Individuals with high power motivation also were more likely than those with low to seat themselves in visible positions during group discussions, and they displayed significantly more cantankerous behaviors during the discussions.
Findings like these provide support for the notion that individuals with high power needs seek to make themselves highly visible to others. Additional research found that in contrast to their counterparts with low power motivation, students with high power motivation tended to select as close friends students who were not well known to other students on campus. This finding provides support for the idea that those with high power motivation levels surround themselves with individuals who will not threaten their visibility.
Communication And Attributed Power
Although the research just considered is predicated on the idea that relatively stable personality dispositions such as dominance and power motivation drive behavior, other research suggests that the behaviors social actors enact during social interaction episodes can promote differential perceptions of their power and influence among those who observe them. In the typical study, individuals engage in a group discussion that is video recorded and analyzed. At the conclusion of the discussion, each group member rates the degree to which every other group member was influential in the discussion. These judgments are then correlated with behaviors exhibited during the discussion to determine which behaviors are related to the influence judgments.
An analysis of 77 different experiments using this methodology showed an average correlation of .65 between the frequency with which group members verbally participated in the group and others’ judgments of the degree to which they were influential in the discussion. Those who spoke most often tended to be judged to be more influential than those who spoke little. Studies of this kind have revealed that individuals who interrupt others more, speak with greater vocal intensity, and pause little while speaking tend to be judged to be more influential than those who score the opposite on these speech parameters (Berger 1994). In addition to these nonverbal indicators of dominance, some have broadened the list of relevant features to include verbal aspects of communication, under the heading of powerful versus powerless speech (Ng & Bradac 1993). Speech marked by the frequent use of qualifiers, hedges, and indirectness, in addition to nonverbal indicants of submissiveness such as a soft voice and frequent pauses, prompts judgments of powerlessness by observers.
Since the 1970s there has been considerable debate about how sex differences in speech and language use might influence people’s judgments of women’s and men’s influence in social situations. Some have alleged, for example, that in contrast to men, women tend to display a characteristic speech style that creates perceptions of submissiveness and powerlessness, which may explain why women have tended not to rise to positions of power and influence in society (Lakoff 1975). Specifically, the claim is that more than men, women tend to: (1) use overly polite language when making requests; (2) employ tag questions when asserting opinions, for example, “It’s a nice day, isn’t it?”; and (3) use a rising vocal intonation when answering questions. The latter two of these forms were purported to make their users sound more uncertain and less confident about what it is they are saying and thus less influential in social situations. Contemporaneous studies of conversations between men and women revealed that men tended to interrupt women more often than women interrupted men, thus suggesting that men assume a dominant role in cross-sex interactions. Although some subsequent research has reported similar findings, there are a number of studies that have found either no sex differences in interruption rates or situations in which women interrupt men more than men do women (Berger 1994; Dindia & Canary 2006). Mixed results have also been reported for sex differences in the rates of tag questions and use of a rising vocal intonation in answering questions (Dindia & Canary 2006).
One explanation for these inconsistent results is the fact that interruptions, tag questions, and rising vocal intonation may serve a variety of functions during social encounters. For example, when a person says “It’s a nice day, isn’t it?” to someone, the tag question may serve as a friendly invitation to converse rather than a signal that the person is uncertain that it is “a nice day.” Similarly, interruptions may serve a variety of functions other than bids for dominance. People may interrupt speakers to show support or agreement with what they are saying, or they may interrupt to seek clarification. The interrupter’s primary goal is not to dominate the speaker, although observers of the interruption might infer that the interrupter is pursuing such a goal. Because such behaviors as interruptions, tag questions, and rising vocal intonations are multifunctional, merely counting their relative occurrence in conversations between men and women to determine who is more dominant cannot clearly reveal potential sex differences in the use of so-called “dominant forms” of communication.
Conversational topics might also determine whether women or men will dominate interactions between them. On average, women might dominate cross-sex conversations that happen to include time spent talking about women’s fashions, while men might assume a dominant role when the topic is professional football. Of course, some men might dominate a discussion of women’s fashions and some women could dominate a professional football discussion; however, in the aggregate such instances would probably be less frequent. In any case, some theories, such as status characteristics theory, suggest that individuals are accorded leadership (dominant) positions in groups when other group members perceive that they possess certain status characteristics, such as education, leading perceivers to believe that such status characteristics are associated with special competencies (Berger et al. 1977). Dominance patterns in mixed-sex interactions may hinge in part on such competence inferences.
Most would agree that power and dominance are fundamental dimensions of social interaction. That verbal and nonverbal communication can both give expression to individual proclivities to exercise power and serve as grist for observers’ inference mills when judging how dominant fellow social actors are is beyond dispute. However, the story that explains these complex relationships is still far from complete.
- Berger, C. R. (1994). Power, dominance, and social interaction. In M. L. Knapp & G. R. Miller (eds.), Handbook of interpersonal communication, 2nd edn. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage, pp. 450–507.
- Berger, J., Fisek, M. H., Norman, R. Z., & Zelditch, M. (1977). Status characteristics and social interaction. New York: Elsevier.
- Dindia, K., & Canary, D. J. (2006). Sex differences and similarities in communication, 2nd edn. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum.
- Lakoff, R. (1975). Language and the woman’s place. New York: Harper and Row.
- Ng, S. H., & Bradac, J. J. (1993). Power in language: Verbal communication and social influence. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.
- Winter, D. G. (1973). The power motive. New York: Free Press.