It’s well established that—barring those rare moments when the clouds are parting, the sun is shining, and the birds are chirping Louis Armstrong—a visit to the DMV entails long lines, harsh fluorescent lights, and hard-edged responses from the employee on the other side of the desk. But it's all too easy to blame DMV workers for policies they didn't create or forget that they're people too.
A new study shows why interactions with DMV employees and other clerical workers can be so fraught, and why it can feel like they are picking on people who just want to register a car. The research, titled The Destructive Nature of Power Without Status, concludes that people in positions with power but low social status often use their authority to demean others.The lesson is not just that power corrupts, but that putting people in demeaning roles leads them to demean others. In other words, it's a real life reminder of the trope that "misery loves company."
The study used 213 undergraduate students in role play scenarios, simulating different combinations of power and status. The researchers told some students they were high-status "idea producers" and others they were low-level workers, and split them further into low- and high-power groups. The students were asked to assign their classmates tasks from a list including everything from "clap your hands 50 times" to "say 'I am filthy' five times." The students given high power but low status were significantly more likely to assign the most demeaning tasks than members of the other three groups. That "demonstrates that power liberates one to act on the negative emotions that result when one is being disrespected by others," says Stanford's Nir Halevy, one of the study's three authors.
On one level, the results aren't surprising—of course people who are disrespected by society would take out their frustration on others when they have the chance—but that correlation can have unexpectedly harrowing effects. The researchers theorize that power without status may have led guards at Abu Ghraib to abuse prisoners under their watch, for example. The solution, obviously enough, is to tell and show people that they're valuable. Respect, the authors write, "assuages negative feelings about their low-status roles, and leads them to treat others positively." Keep that in mind next time you're tempted to lash out at a customer service agent, ok?