For the past twenty years, I have been carrying out experiments to find out how power is distributed in groups. I have infiltrated college dorms and children’s summer camps to document who rises in power. I have brought entire sororities and fraternities into the lab, capturing the substance and spread of individuals’ reputations within their social networks. I have surreptitiously identified which members of groups are gossiped about, and who receive gossip. To chart the experience of power, I have studied what it feels like to be placed in positions of authority.
Findings from this research converge on an organizing idea: Whereas the Machiavellian approach to power assumes that individuals grab it through coercive force, strategic deception, and the undermining of others, the science finds that power is not grabbed but is given to individuals by groups.
What this means is that your ability to make a difference in the world—your power, as I define it—is shaped by what other people think of you. Your capacity to alter the state of others depends on their trust in you. Your ability to empower others depends on their willingness to be influenced by you. Your power is constructed in the judgments and actions of others. When they grant you power, they increase your ability to make their lives better—or worse.