Social Power Demonstration

In 1955, social psychologists Alvin Zander and Arthur R. Cohen published a classroom exercise to demonstrate social power. The following description is inspired by their work.

Students are instructed that they will be interacting in small discussion groups. They are given the hypothetical task of developing a recommendation to be presented to the university’s vice president, regarding how to spend a sizable donation. Most students are immediately assigned to small groups (of approximately five students). Two students for each group are asked to wait in the hallway.

Inside the classroom, the facilitator explains that two students will soon join the group. One should be treated as a high status person (Zander and Cohen used the Dean of the academic school) while the other should be treated as a low status person (Zander and Cohen used a first-year student). The groups are to assign one empty seat to high status role and the other empty seat to the low status role. The groups are instructed to treat the person sitting in each seat consistent with the role.

The students in the hallway are instructed that they will play the role of newcomers to established groups; they are not told about their assigned status.

After a period of interaction, the newcomers are asked to share their experiences of joining the groups. Those assigned low status tend to report remarkably different experiences than those assigned high status.

The facilitators can use this exercise to generate a critical discussion of social power.

Zander, A., & Cohen, A. R. (1955). Attributed social power and group acceptance: A classroom experimental demonstration. The Journal of Abnormal and Social Psychology, 51, 490-492.