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The importance of control

Research shows that people are willing to trade one source of personal control for another. Power is control over ...

By Simona Botti and Ena Inesi 04 August 2011

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This research shows that people are willing to trade one source of personal control for another. Power is control over what other people do; choice is control over your own outcomes. Given their common basis in control, we suspected that power and choice may be able to stand in for one another.


For example, if people lack power, they clamour for choice, and if they have an abundance of choice they don't strive as much for power.


To find out if power and choice are substitutable, we conducted a series of experiments that looked at whether lacking one source of control (e.g., power) would trigger a greater need for the other (e.g., choice).


In one set of experiments, participants first read a description of a boss or an employee and then spent time thinking about how they would feel in if they inhabited that role. In this way, some people were made to feel powerful and some were made to feel powerless. Then the participants were told they could buy eyeglasses or ice cream from a store that had three options or a store that had fifteen options. People who were made to feel powerless were willing to go through great lengths (i.e., drive farther or wait longer) to access the store with more options.


This set of experiments demonstrates that lacking power made people thirsty for choice. In another set of experiments, when people were deprived of choice, they displayed a thirst for power - for instance, by expressing greater desire to occupy a high-power position.


Additional experiments found that people can be content with either power or choice - or both - but that having neither makes them distinctly dissatisfied.


This discovery - that power and choice are interchangeable - can be useful in the workplace. Imagine a person at an organisation who's in a low-level job. You can make that seemingly powerless person feel better about their job and their duties by giving them some choice in the way they do the work or what project they work on.

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