Social Power, Dominance, and Threat

[Literature Review, for PSY 540: Interpersonal Psychology, WNMU, Spring 2017]

As with many things human, social power is not as salient as a constant, as it is when it’s measured in differences. That is, the differences in individuals’ relative power have a strongly influential function in interpersonal relations, and it’s doubtful that any sort of inherent personal empowerment even exists. Any meaning to be found in the study of social power and its effects must be found in the analysis of those things that moderate social power differences. This review will define social power as the ability of an individual control social resources, like access to social interaction, to influence the behavior of other individuals (Neal, 2010; Keltner, Gruenfeld, & Anderson, 2003).

Social dominance orientation (SDO) is the description of a person’s implicit acceptance of social hierarchies as necessary/desirable or unnecessary/undesirable. There is some disagreement among researchers about the nature of SDO. One argument has been whether the scale commonly used to measure SDO is measuring a general attitude toward social hierarchies as intended, or a specific attitude toward the hierarchy applicable in the specific study. Kteily, Ho, and Sidanius (2012) addressed that question and found that SDO, as measured in the same scale, does reflect a generalized attitude toward social hierarchy. Another argument is whether SDO is malleable. It is often considered to be an underlying, stable trait (Kteily, Ho, & Sidanius; Brauer & Bourhis), but more recent research has demonstrated that measurements of SDO seem to be influenced by the interaction between several moderators. These moderating influences are a person’s history of socialization, their temperament and personality, their social position (their individual position within their group), social network position (the position of their group relative to other groups), and the situational context (Brauer & Bourhis). Therefore, this review will approach SDO as a generalized orientation toward social hierarchy which is variably expressed, depending on the several contextual moderators.

The relative acceptance of social hierarchy is tied to the idea that, if hierarchy is acceptable, then people’s status in the hierarchy is ‘deserved’ (Brauer & Bourhis, 2006). This leads to an obvious connection between SDO and the ‘just world’ belief (that people generally get what they deserve, and that relative social status indicates an innate superiority/inferiority; Blaine, 2013). The just world belief is supported in a high-SDO person by hierarchy-enhancing myths, which rationalize the negative traits attributed to the lower-powered group or person (Costello & Hodson, 2011). Given that, high SDO predicts that people who have both high SDO and high social rank are more likely to hold negative prejudices of lower ranked groups or people, especially if the lower ranked people are attempting to improve their rank (Costello & Hodson). In fact, an attempt by an ‘inferior’ group to change the established hierarchy increases the likelihood that high SDO/high rank people will dehumanize the low rank group. High SDO people react similarly in situations which appear to manifest a group threat, which indicates that the attempt to change the established hierarchy might itself be perceived as a threat, and that the perception of threat interacts with SDO more than it does with social position. That indication is further supported by the reactions to threat by low SDO people in the ‘superior’ group: they are less likely to dehumanize the lower ranked group and more likely to help them in attempts to improve their social position (Costello & Hodson). If we allow that improving one’s social position means assimilating into the dominant group – in other words, adjusting behaviors and appearance to be indistinguishable from them – then doing so disrupts or trivializes the social hierarchy that people with high SDO accept as necessary and desirable, thereby threatening their entire world view. The interaction of SDO and the perception of threat then becomes the key component in predicting the treatment of lower-ranking groups, regardless of the subject’s social position.

Unexpectedly, high status groups can be threatened by low status groups (Blascovich, et al., 2001; Mendes, et al., 2002), but the differentiation between threat and the perception of threat is important. In a study focused on the persecution of immigrants, Thomsen, Green, and Sidanius (2008) found that assimilation itself is not associated with increased dehumanization of immigrants (the low status group in this study) by established citizens (the high status group). Comparing two situations, both of which involved an immigrant population assimilate in the dominant culture, the reaction of the high SDO citizens demonstrated far more prejudice when they believed the immigrants were more different from than similar to the citizens (Thomsen, Green, & Sidanius). It appeared that the citizens were more accepting of immigrants who shared cultural or ethnic traits with the citizens, and less accepting of immigrants they believed they had nothing in common with. Perhaps assimilating immigrants who are already similar to the citizens is processed as supporting the existing hierarchy, while assimilating immigrants thought to be inherently different subverts the established hierarchy.

How does the same apply to people who are in the lower status group? There is substantial evidence that being in a low ranking social group increases individuals’ threat vigilance and reactions (Kraus, Horberg, Goetz, & Keltner, 2011). This seems to make sense, because a person of low social power would have access to fewer resources, and therefore be more sensitive to the potential for losing those resources. This sensitivity is heightened when the individual’s social status is more salient, such as when they are interacting with people of higher status (Kraus, et al.). It is not clear how – or if – SDO would interact with threat sensitivity in a low status person, but given the above, I would hypothesize that, in this context, high SDO would be associated with a greater increase in threat reactivity, though the practical nature of what constituted a threat might be different.

The seeming paradox of the threat reactions in both high and low status people might be better illuminated by Neal’s (2010) study, which demonstrated a curvilinear relationship between social aggression and social network position such that aggression peaks when the person’s social network position in the middle of the hierarchy. Relational or social aggression is that which hurts the victim by exercising control over their access to social resources (Neal, 2010). Aggressors tend to hold more control over resources, and there is support for the idea that social aggression predicts and is predicted by higher resources control, a measurement of social power, in context-specific ways (Reijntjes, et al., 2013). The inclusion of relational aggression is relevant to the discussion of social power and threat sensitivity because aggression is a common human reaction to perceived threats (Miller, 2015). Neal’s demonstration of the relationship between social aggression and network position might be explained by the intermediate nature of that central status position and two contradictory effects of social aggression: the use of social aggression increases a person’s perceived social power (and people seen as powerful are assumed to be more aggressive; Reijntjes, et al., 2013), but decreases how likable others think they are. The use of aggression, then, is risky, and the trade of power for preference must be worthwhile. A middle status allows a person enough social power that they can control some access to social resources, but there is still something to gain (increased status) by using social aggression. A low status means a person has more to gain through social aggression, while a high status means the person has less to gain and the risk might not be worth the loss of appreciation by one’s peers. (Neal, 2010)

The interactions between power, dominance, and threat reactions are obviously intricate and require far more parsing than I’ve begun here. There are many questions to be drawn from the above review, but I am most curious about the interaction between the perception of social threats and social dominance orientation: Are these interactions influenced by the security or stability of the participants’ social positions? And how do these variations change in relation to the contextual social status of the participants?





Blaine, B.E. (2013). Understanding the psychology of diversity, 2nd ed. Sage Publications.

Blascovich, J., Mendes, W.B., Hunter, S.B., Lickel, B., & Kowai-Bell, N. (2001). Perceiver threat in social interactions with stigmatized others. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 80(2): 253-267. DOI: 10.1037//0022-3514.80.2.253

Brauer, M. & Bourhis, R.Y. (2006). Social power. European Journal of Social Psychology, 36, 601-616. DOI: 10.1002/ejsp.355

Costello, K., & Hodson, G. (2011). Social dominance-based threat reactions to immigrants in need of assistance. European Journal of Social Prejudice, 41, 220-231. DOI: 10.1002/ejsp.769

Keltner, D., Gruenfeld, D.H., & Anderson, C. (2003). Power, approach, and inhibition. Psychological Review, 110, 265.284.

Kraus, M.W., Horberg, E.J., Goetz, J.L., & Keltner, D. (2011). Social class rank, threat vigilance, and hostile reactivity. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 37(10): 1376-1388. DOI: 10.1177/0146167211410987

Kteily, N., Ho, A.K., & Sidanius, J. (2012). Hierarchy in the mind: The predictive power of social dominance orientation across social contexts and domains. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 48, 543-549. DOI: 10.1016/j.jesp.2011.11.007

Mendes, W.B., Blascovish, J., Lickel, B., & Hunter, S. (2002). Challenge and threat during social interactions with white and Black men. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 28(7): 939-952.

Miller, R. S. (2015). Intimate relationships (7th ed.). NY: McGraw-Hill.

Neal, J. W. (2010). Social aggression and social position in middle childhood and early adolescence: Burning bridges or building them? Journal of Early Adolescence, 30(1): 122-137. DOI: 10.1177/0272431609350924

Reijntjes, A., Vermande, M., Goossens, F.A., Olthof, T., van der Schoot, R., Aleva, L., & van der Meulen, M. (2013). Developmental trajectories of bullying and social dominance in youth. Child Abuse & Neglect, 37(4): 224-234.

Thomsen, L., Green, E.G., & Sidanius, J. (2008). We will hunt them down: How social dominance orientation and right-wing authoritarianism fuel ethnic persecution of immigrants in fundamentally different ways. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 44(6): 1455-1464. DOI: 10.1016/j.jesp.2008.06.011






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