3
SITUATIONAL STRUCTURE, SELF-ESTEEM, AND THREAT- ORIENTED REACTIONS TO POWER 1

ARTHUR R. COHEN

One persistent problem in the study of human behavior is that of specifying the links between social structure and personality. The concept "power" appears to be ideally suited for this purpose. Power is essentially a structural concept, referring to certain central aspects of the functional arrangements of any social system. At the same time, it necessarily deals with the motivations of individuals. The exercise of power requires some acceptance by those who are part of the social system, and since reward and punishment are inherently involved, it has various repercussions upon the adjustment and reactions of everyone in the power relation.

The present study is concerned with some of the conditions under which power becomes a threat to the individual over whom it is exercised and some of the reactions stemming from this threat. The particular conditions investigated were selected largely because they had been found to be operative in a previous field investigation (see Chapter 2). In that study two conditions appeared to be particularly important in determining the amount of threat experienced by a low-power person in his relations with someone of high power.

The first of these concerns the individual's self-feelings. It appeared that a person's reactions to being under the power of another depends to a considerable degree upon his view of himself. Consequently, it was decided to study the variable "self-esteem" under more controlled conditions.

The second condition has to do with the structure of the role situation. In the earlier field study, it was found that persons of different occupational groups often differed in the designation of their own and others' functions and duties, that there was often overlap of functions, and that frequently the goals were unclear and the means of reaching them vague. On the basis of

____________________
1
This investigation was supported by a grant-in-aid (M-325 (C)) from the Institute of Mental Health of the National Institutes of Health, Public Health Service.

-35-

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