Even though having more power usually makes people more motivated to pursue their goals, a new study has found that individuals with higher power exhibit more physiological responses associated with threat when they talk about their personal problems with a romantic partner who also has high power. The new findings appear in the journal Psychophysiology.
The research provides valuable insights into the complex interplay between power dynamics, motivation orientation, and physiological responses within romantic relationships. It also highlights that individuals’ actual physiological responses may not always align with their self-reported appraisals of power-related resources.
The authors of the new study were interested in understanding how power dynamics in romantic relationships influence individuals’ motivation orientations and physiological responses. They based their study on the Approach/Inhibition Theory of Power, which suggests that individuals with higher power tend to have more approach-oriented motivation, seeking rewards and pursuing goals, while individuals with lower power tend to have more avoidance-oriented motivation, trying to avoid threats and negative outcomes.
“Our romantic partners are often who we go to when facing problems that we have in other areas of our life. I was interested in how power influences stress responses when we discuss these problems with our partners,” said study author Abriana M. Gresham, a Ph.D. candidate in Experimental Psychology at Ohio University.
Previous research had mostly relied on artificial power dynamics created in the lab to study the association between power and motivation orientations. However, the researchers believed that studying power dynamics within real-life romantic relationships would provide a more realistic and insightful understanding of the topic.
The study involved 139 couples who were recruited through various methods, including Ohio University’s SONA system, campus-wide emails, and flyers. To be eligible for the study, participants had to be at least 18 years old and in a romantic relationship with each other for at least three months.
Each participant completed the Sense of Power Scale, which measured their sense of power across various domains related to control and influence over others. They were then asked to identify two extra-dyadic problems (problems not involving their partner) and rate the importance and stressfulness of these problems.
The participants were randomly assigned roles for the problem discussion task – one partner would be the discloser (sharing one of their reported problems), and the other partner would be the responder (responding to the discloser’s problem). Before the conversation, the participants’ physiological responses (heart rate, blood pressure, etc.) were recorded during a resting baseline assessment.
During the conversation, the researchers used physiological measures like electrocardiography (ECG) and impedance cardiography (ICG) to assess cardiovascular responses. They were particularly interested in the Biopsychosocial Model of Challenge and Threat, which suggests that physiological responses can indicate approach-oriented (challenge) or avoidance-oriented (threat) motivations.
After the conversation, the participants completed questionnaires about their stress appraisals during the discussion and their appraisals of resources and demands.
The researchers found that individuals with higher power reported having more resources to cope with the conversation, which aligns with the Approach/Inhibition Theory of Power. This suggests that higher-power individuals may feel better equipped to handle challenges and stressors.
However, contrary to their initial hypothesis, the researchers observed that individuals with higher power exhibited physiological responses indicative of more avoidance-oriented motivation when disclosing problems to a high-power partner. In this specific context, higher-power individuals seemed to show physiological markers of stress and avoidance, even though they perceived themselves to have more resources to cope.
“We were surprised to find that higher power was associated with more threat (an avoidance-like response) when individuals were disclosing problems to their partner, since this was in contrast to our prediction based on Keltner’s Approach/Inhibition Theory of Power which suggests that higher power should be associated with more approach-like responses,” Gresham told PsyPost.
The results highlight a potential conflict between self-reported appraisals of power-related resources and actual physiological responses in certain situations. It appears that the power dynamics between partners play a role in influencing their motivation orientation during discussions. When disclosing personal problems to a high-power partner, individuals with higher power may experience threats to their power, triggering avoidance-oriented responses.
“Generally, we think of higher power as being associated with positive outcomes for the self and for relationships,” Gresham said. “However, the results of this study highlight a specific context where it may not be that straightforward. Specifically, we found that people higher in power had more of a maladaptive stress response when they were disclosing problems to a partner who was also high in power.”
The study’s findings contribute to a better understanding of how power dynamics impact individuals’ behavior and responses within romantic partnerships, shedding light on the intricacies of human interactions and motivation. However, further research is needed to explore additional factors and contexts that may influence the relationship between power, motivation, and physiological responses in relationships.
“One major caveat is that this study focused on general sense of power instead of power specific to the relationship,” Gresham added. “In the future, we hope to test whether these findings hold when evaluating relationship-specific power. Moreover, as with most psychological research, we describe general patterns across an entire sample. That is, our findings do not mean that everyone with high power who discloses a problem to a high power partner will experience a maladaptive stress response.”
The study, “Sense of power and markers of challenge and threat during extra-dyadic problem discussions with romantic partners“, was authored by Abriana M. Gresham, Brett J. Peters, Ashley Tudder, and Jeffry A. Simpson.