Power is a force that needs an object: To have power, a person has to have it over something, or someone.
One would think that this would be the appeal of power—to be able to control things, to change them to fit your vision of reality. (This can obviously be good or bad, depending on who’s in power and what their vision is.) But a new study suggests that people who desire power are mostly looking to control one thing—themselves.
The study authors, from the University of Cologne, the University of Groningen, and Columbia University, present two different conceptions of power—power as influence and power as autonomy. “Power as influence is expressed in having control over others, which could involve responsibility for others,” they write. “In contrast, power as autonomy is a form of power that allows one person to ignore and resist the influence of others and thus to shape one’s own destiny.”
Generally, when people say they want power, what they really want is autonomy. And when they get that autonomy, they tend to stop wanting power.
That people would value autonomy over influence jives with self-determination theory, a psychological theory that suggests autonomy is one of humans’ basic psychological needs, along with relatedness and competence. Influence is not aneed under this theory. Another study suggests that while striving for power lowers people’s well-being, once they have power, they really are happier, because they feel more authentic—the power makes them feel like the circumstances of their lives are more in line with who they feel they are inside. That may be because the power gives them the freedom to make their own decisions, and their sense of well-being grows when they do what they want.
The researchers on the new study suggest that influence may seem more important to people just because it’s more visible. It’s easier to see how people control others than it is to see them feeling autonomous. The study references real leaders like Napoleon, Caesar, Obama, and Putin, and fictional ones like Darth Vader and Sauron, and says, “The sense of autonomy of these powerful individuals is not as visible: It is reflected in the absence of constraint, plans notbeing thwarted, and ambitions not being frustrated—an absence which remains unobserved.”
“This,” they concluded, “can easily lead to a false understanding of what drives the desire for power.”
-More at The Atlantic