Definitions of and Motivations for Power


“Power is a word the meaning of which we do not understand” Leo Tolstoy – War and Peace

Definitions of and Motivations for Power

You could say that there are two types of people in this world: those who hold positions of power and those who do not. However, that would be incorrect. In our lives most of us are able to both exert power in certain contexts while being subject to the exertion of power upon us in others. Sometimes in a relationship between two individuals, the exertion of and subjection to the power dynamic will change depending upon the context.

While Pittman & D’Agostino1 and Fiske2 go some way towards defining power with reference to the capacity to exercise control over scarce resources, it is proposed here that a definition of power ought to have this concept at its core. A scarce resource can be defined as any resource that an individual or group identifies it is in need of and of which there is a limited supply. As such, scarce resources can take the form of food, water, shelter, fuel, money or consumer goods; and the definition can be extended to include resources such as societal structure, law and order, health care, defence, infrastructure etc. However, the definition can be extended yet further to include less tangible resources such as social inclusion, affirmation, validation, love. All of these resources are essential to an individual’s well being and at times survival. Furthermore, the non-ubiquitous nature of these resources renders them scarce and therefore of use to an individual or group seeking to utilise them as leverage in the securing of and subsequent wielding of power.

In light of the above it is suggested that the reasons behind the draw towards the trappings of power and the motivation behind the desire to occupy positions of power, can be summarised as follows:

  1. Power allows an individual to control the access of others to scarce resources.
  2. It allows an individual to gain primary access to these same scarce resources, i.e. for their own benefit.
  3. This control is the leverage by which they can have others do what they would have them do.

It is worth noting, of course, that an individual can find themselves occupying a position of power but that the attainment of such a position or the attainment of the position for its power-wielding potential, was not their initial intention.

Motivations for Power and Sexualised Regression

Paradoxically, that which drives an individual towards power, it is suggested, might also be a direct response and reaction against the desire to regress and return to an infant state. A position of ultimate power can be viewed as the polar opposite of the infant state of powerlessness, and the drive within an individual towards a position of power and thus a position of control can, in certain circumstances, be driven by the denial and repression of this part of the self, a part of the self that is perceived as weak and thus a part that is despised. Power holders are often associated with an intolerance for the perceived weaknesses in others (identified as a form of projection of themselves onto the other)3 and, in terms of sexual preference, anecdotal evidence suggests that many of those who indulge in fetishes that involve being dominated sexually are those whose day job involves occupying a position from which great power can be exercised. It is suggested that this regression, taking a sexualised form, acts as an outlet and as a means of exploring a repressed part of the psyche that longs to return to a form of infant state.

What might be the extent to which the drive towards and attainment of power evokes sexualised tendencies? Could regressive tendencies that were present all along effectively drive the desire for power attainment?

  1. Pittman, T.S. & D’Agostino, P.R. (1985). Motivation and attribution: The effects of control deprivation on subsequent information processing. In J.H. Harvey & G. Weary (Eds.), Attribution: Basic and applied issues (pp. 117-142). New York: Academic Press.
  2. Fiske, S (2004). Social beings: A core motives approach to social psychology. New York: Wiley
  3. Gilbert, P (1999), Overcoming Depression p. 185-6

1 thought on “Definitions of and Motivations for Power

  1. Pingback: Legitimate and Illegitimate Dependence in Power Relationships and the ‘Resources Trade-Off’ | the psychology of power

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