Why are pencil-pusher bureaucrats - like, for example, DMV workers - are often so mean? Researchers led by Nathanael J. Fast at Stanford Graduate School of Business have the answer:
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.