December 2018

Differentiate the Power Motive into Dominance, Prestige, and Leadership: New Tool and Theory

This is a guest post from Felix Suessenbach.


What is the dominance, prestige, and leadership account of the power motive?

Researchers of motivational psychology have long struggled with the power motive’s heterogeneous definition encompassing elements such as desires for dominance, reputation, prestige, leadership, and status (e.g., Winter, 1973). This heterogeneity has likely been responsible for researchers having found different relationships between the power motive and external variables depending on which power motive scale they used (e.g., Engeser & Langens, 2010). Thus, to provide a long-needed taxonomy of clearly distinguishable power motive components we developed the dominance, prestige, and leadership (DoPL) account of social power motives. In particular we differentiate between:

  • The dominance motive, defined as a desire for coercive power obtained through threats, intimidation, or deception

  • The prestige motive, defined as a desire for voluntary deference obtained through others’ admiration and respect particularly for one’s valued skills and knowledge

  • The leadership motive, defined as a desire for legitimised power granted by one’s group and obtained through taking responsibility in and for this group

Opposed to previous attempts to differentiate different power motive components (e.g., socialised and personalised power; McClelland, 1970) the DoPL account of social power motives is based on a solid theoretical framework adapted from research into social hierarchies (e.g., Cheng, Tracy, & Henrich, 2010; Henrich & Gil-White, 2001). Thus, the DoPL account does not suffer from strongly different interpretations of how these components manifest themselves.

Empirical results:

Using newly developed DoPL questionnaires we showed the DoPL motives can be measured both reliably and distinctively (study 1). Moreover, we showed these DoPL motives strongly related to a common power desire (study 2), explaining more than 80% of variance in two established power motive scales (UMS power, Schönbrodt & Gerstenberg, 2012; PRF dominance, Jackson, 1984). Assessing their nomological networks (studies 3 & 4), we demonstrated distinct associations such as between…

  • the dominance motive and self-reported anger and verbal aggression

  • the prestige motive and self-reported fear of losing reputation and claiming to have higher moral concerns

  • the leadership motive and self-reported emotional stability and helping behaviour

Regarding observed behaviour and other external variables (studies 5 to 7) we found:

  • The dominance motive uniquely and negatively predicted the amount of money given to another player in a dictator game after having received nothing in two previous dictator games. This effect can be explained by a combination of general agonistic tendencies as well as retaliatory desires related to the dominance motive.

  • The leadership motive uniquely predicted the attainment of higher employment ranks across all kinds of professions. This effect was somewhat stronger in females which might be explained by discrimination against females regarding promotions and thus females having to compensate by being more highly motivated to reach high leadership positions.

  • When donating behaviour to a charity was made overt, residualised dominance motives (i.e., controlled for shared prestige and leadership influences) related negatively to the overall proportion donated to a charity as well as the probability to donate. Whereas residualised leadership motives only related positively to the overall amount donated to charity, residualised prestige motives only related positively to the probability to donate. Thus, to some degree, dominance desires relate negatively and leadership and prestige desires positively to prosocial donating behaviour.


This research shows that different power motive components in many (but not all) cases relate differently to a range of external variables. Thus, to improve the prediction of influential power-relevant behaviour as a function of individuals’ power desires we invite researchers to employ this novel taxonomy of power motives to further advance this important field of research.


Cheng, J. T., Tracy, J. L., & Henrich, J. (2010). Pride, personality, and the evolutionary foundations of human social status. Evolution and Human Behavior, 31, 334–347

Engeser, S., & Langens, T. (2010). Mapping explicit social motives of achievement, power, and affiliation onto the five-factor model of personality. Scandinavian Journal of Psychology, 51, 309–318

Henrich, J., & Gil-White, F. J. (2001). The evolution of prestige: Freely conferred deference as a mechanism for enhancing the benefits of cultural transmission. Evolution and Human Behavior, 22, 165–196

Jackson, D. N. (1984). Personality research form manual (3rd ed.). Port Huron: Research Psychologists Press.

McClelland, D. C. (1970). The two faces of power. Journal of International Affairs, 24, 29–47.

Schönbrodt, F. D., & Gerstenberg, F. X. R. (2012). An IRT analysis of motive questionnaires: The unified motive scales. Journal of Research in Personality, 46, 725–742 [Free PDF on OSF]

Winter, D. G. (1973). The power motive. New York: The Free Press.

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