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Talking About Power: Understanding When and Why Would a Conversation about Power Take Place

October 1, 2013

By Tamar Saguy (Interdisciplinary Center [IDC], Herzliya) and John F. Dovidio (Yale University)

Sheryl Zandberg, the chief operator officer of Facebook, in her recently published book Lean In, examines the obstacles women face when trying to climb the professional ladder. Her goal in publishing the book, she explained in an interview, was to “spur a conversation” about women in power.

But who would be willing to take part in such a conversation? We ask this very question in our research recently published in Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin (Saguy & Dovidio, 2013). Specifically, we examine when a conversation about power relations is likely to take place, and who is likely to initiate it. Like Zandberg, the fundamental assumption guiding our research is that a conversation about power relations is an instrument for advancing societal change. Indeed, unequal practices (such as gender discrimination in hiring) are unlikely to change as long as individuals are unaware of them. To bring about change, the difficult issues pertaining to power and inequality have to be “put on the table” and addressed.

In our research we demonstrate that precisely because a discussion about power is an instrument for change, individuals who belong to advantaged groups do not want to take part in it, and those who belong to disadvantaged groups are likely to advance a conversation about power. To provide experimental evidence for this tendency, we randomly assigned student from the University of Connecticut (UCONN) to one of two conditions. We told some students they were about to meet students from Yale university. We told the students in the other condition they were about to meet students from a college with relatively little prestige relative to UCONN (Eastern). All participants were given the exact same list of topics for discussion, some pertaining to power relations between the schools (e.g., the privileges available to students from high status schools) and some completely  unrelated to power (e.g., living in Connecticut). We then asked them to indicate which topics they wanted to discuss during the meeting.

Results revealed that when UCONN students thought they are about to meet students form the prestigious Yale university, they had a clear preference to address issues related to power differences. In contrast, when UCONN students thought they are to meet student from Eastern, they wanted to avoid discussion of those power issues. Interestingly, we further found that when the status relations between the schools were made to seem changeable and illegitimate , students assigned to the low status condition were most likely to wish to address power relations. These very conditions, however, generated an opposite pattern of preferences among participants in the advantaged condition. For them, when the status relations seemed insecure and morally questionable, there was still a clear desire to avoid discussion of power. The only condition in which participants assigned to the advantaged condition were willing to address power, was when they believed their advantaged status is illegitimate, but stable and secure. Applying this tendency to the Zandberg example, men are unlikely to participate in a conversation about power dynamics between men and women in the workplace, while women would be more eager to have that conversation, particularly when they believe there is a chance for them to succeed in their struggle for equality.

Our research indicates that discussions about power, although pivotal for advancing social change, are unlikely to occur because advantaged group members are not interested to take part in such a conversation, particularly when they fear that their position is insecure. This suggest that in order to spark a conversation about power, it is not enough to simply put the issue on the table – one needs to consider the psychological needs and motivations of potential participants in such a conversation, and to attempt to overcome the obstacles we documented in this paper.

Author Information

SaguyTamar Saguy is an assistant professor of psychology at the Interdisciplinary Center (IDC),Herzliya, Israel. She received her PhD in Social Psychology from the University of Connecticut in 2008, and was then a postdoctoral associate at Yale University. Dr. Saguy uses a variety of scientific methods to understand psychological processes associated with tension and harmony between groups. She studies a range of intergroup contexts including relations between men and women, between different ethnic groups, and between different racial groups. Saguy has published her work in journals such as Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, and Psychological Science.

jdovidio  John (“Jack”) Dovidio, who received his Ph.D. from the University of Delaware in 1977, is currently Professor of Psychology at Yale University. He previously taught at the University of Connecticut and Colgate University, where he also served as Provost. He has published over 300 articles, chapters, and books.  His honors include the Kurt Lewin Award from the Society for the Psychological Study of Social Issues (SPSSI) and the Donald Campbell Award from the Society for Personality and Social Psychology (SPSP).


Saguy, T., & Dovidio, J. F. (2013). Insecure status relations shape preferences for the content of intergroup contact. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 39, 1030-1042.

Image Credit:  Book jacket for Lean In, copyright 2013 by Lean In Foundation, All rights reserved. Published in the United States by Alfred A. Knopf, a division of Random House, Inc. A Borzoi Book.

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