Exploring the psychology behind abusive relationships—and how to fight back

Abuse of power is common. But it is difficult to spot: you may not even realise that you are doing it yourself.

Published : May 06, 2023 17:48 IST - 5 MINS READ

Are people drawn to positions of power just because they “enjoy exerting it for the sake of it”?

Are people drawn to positions of power just because they “enjoy exerting it for the sake of it”? | Photo Credit: Colourbox

It happens in almost every work and social environment: people are affected by abuse of power in politics, business, scientific research, and healthcare. It can happen between friends and in families, as well. Either way, it is done by people who hold positions of authority—such as leaders, supervisors, or managers — people who have the power to make decisions that affect others.

But psychologists say that if you learn to understand how power abusers think and behave—their common characteristics—you may be able to stop it before it happens to you.

What is abuse of power?

Abuse of power is when someone misuses their authority or higher position in a hierarchy to take advantage of, coerce or harm other people. And it can lead to different types of abuse, such as psychological, physical, financial, and sexual abuse. It can affect the atmosphere in a work environment, reduce productivity and affect people’s mental health.

But abuse of power often goes unreported or unnoticed, especially when the abuser has a high social status, reputation, or influence.

Red flags to help you identify abuse of power

People who abuse power often use intimidation, humiliation, criticism, or coercion to get what they want. They lie and manipulate others. They tend to dominate conversations and situations and can often interrupt or talk over other people. They also like to control personal and professional relationships.

To avoid being exposed, power abusers often demand loyalty and secrecy from others, but at the same time are secretive about their own behaviour. They can also have excessive or unreasonable demands or expectations.

Not only that, but power abusers show a lack of empathy and concern for the well-being of others or tend to dismiss or belittle their concerns. They may deny your perception of a situation and make you question what you see as the truth and how you feel, or refuse to accept any blame.

What can I do against abuse of power?

First, you should try to resist pressure to do anything that makes you feel uncomfortable. That is easier said than done because not everyone is able to do that for a range of social, economic, or cultural factors.

So, if you can, say “No”, and if you can’t do that, try to find help. Get familiar with your organisation’s policies on abuse of power, learn about healthy interactions with your peers and supervisors, and learn what types of interactions are appropriate and inappropriate. You may need to check your own behaviour. “That will empower people to recognise more quickly, more easily, when power is being abused,” said Daniel Leising, a professor of psychology at Dresden Technical University in Germany.

Although it can be hard, psychologists say it is important and can help, to speak up, report abuse of power, talk with colleagues, friends and family that you trust, or get help and advice from professionals.

Now that we have had a look at the basics, let us dig deeper into the underlying psychology of abuse of power.

Does power make good people bad?

The philosopher Lord Acton famously wrote in the 1800s that “power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely”. But more recently, studies have challenged the idea that power turns people into abusers, suggesting instead that power amplifies existing traits in people.

“Power is your capacity to influence and alter the states of mind of people around you,” said Dacher Keltner, a professor of psychology at the University of California, Berkeley. People with power may feel less compassion for others and prioritise their own interests and desires, Keltner said. It can reduce a person’s ability to empathise. But it can also make them more impulsive or antisocial.

In a paper published in 2017, Ana Guinote, a professor of Social Cognition at University College London, wrote that power boosts a person’s confidence, their optimism, their sense of self-expression, and lowers their inhibition.

The Stanford Prison Experiment

One famous study into abuse of power is known as the Stanford Prison Experiment. Done in the 1970s, the experiment put volunteer students in the role of either prisoner or guard. With time, the students given the guard roles became more abusive, aggressive, and indifferent to the prisoners and their well-being.

It suggested that power had turned the guards into bad people. But when researchers took a second look at the results, they proposed that instead of power leading to abuse, it may have been that people with an existing, high propensity to abuse were attracted to take part in the experiment in the first place. “Some people just enjoy having power and exerting it for the sake of it,” said Leising.

Deeper psychological traits in power abuse

The researchers that reanalysed the Stanford Prison Experiment reported that the volunteers had scored higher for traits such as narcissism, machiavellianism, aggressiveness, authoritarianism, and social dominance but lower on empathy and altruism.

Research has shown that there’s a link between narcissistic personalities and tendencies to abuse power and aggression. And low scores for empathy and altruism are generally associated with aggressive forms of abuse.

But Leising said psychologists do not fully agree on what machiavellianism and narcissism actually mean. Some psychologists argue that they might be just one core trait, often referred to as the D factor—D for dark. Power abusers can display a lack of remorse or guilt for their actions.

Power abusers can be authoritarian and insecure

What makes things even more complicated is that power abusers can seem to have contradictory traits. They may have a rigid, hierarchical worldview and a desire for control and dominance over others. They may not like people disagreeing with them or criticising them and may use intimidation or coercion to hold onto power. These are common traits of authoritarianism, a personality trait.

At the same time, they may show insecurities. They may feel that they are not good enough for the job or fear losing power so much that they try even harder to reinforce a sense of control and authority.

But not all people who show such traits are necessarily abusive, and some people who lack these traits may in fact be power abusers. The one thing experts agree on is that you cannot say for sure.


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