Power Without Status Linked To Abuse, Study Says

09/27/2011 03:57 pm ET | Updated Nov 27, 2011

Ever wonder why that clerk at the grocery store is giving you attitude? A new study showing the relationship between power and status may have the answer.

Individuals with some authority combined with little perceived status are more inclined to abuse power, say researchers.

"We found that people who had high power and high status, they were pretty cool," Nathanael Fast, assistant professor of management and organization at the University of Southern California's Marshall School of Business, told CNN. "But it was people who had power and lacked status who used their power to require other persons to engage in demeaning behavior."

Published in the next issue of The Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, the study was based on the notion that low status feels threatening and power allows people the freedom to act on their internal states and feelings.

In the joint field study by USC, Stanford University and Northwestern University participants were divided into two groups. The title of "idea producer" was given to one half of the group, while the other half were called "workers". Next, each participant was given 10 tasks to assign to co-workers that ranged from writing an essay to doing push ups.

According to, the researchers noticed "the low status workers consistently chose more demeaning tasks than the idea producers did - for instance, they were much more likely to choose the task "Bark like a dog three times" for their poor coworkers".

Science Daily notes the researchers aren't advocating that power on its own leads to abuse, nor are all low-status, high-powered individuals demeaning to others. Instead, "power and status interact to produce effects that cannot be fully explained by studying only one or the other basis of hierarchy."

The authors say the findings could apply across business and government and might even explain the abusive behavior of the Abu Ghraib guards in 2004, CNN reports.

So how can we diminish this tendency? Researchers say promotion, respect and managers emphasizing the importance of their work all can help.

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