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(Mis)perceptions of power

Do many units of power, like elites, powerful individuals, but also states, punch above their weight? This was a question raised at a seminar I gave about ‘defensive power’ last week at the University of Cape Town. Elites, for example, often loudly object changes that may jeopardise their position – louder than their power stemming from control over resources would justify. The UK and France are still permanent members of the UN’s security council, while the geopolitical balance has changed substantially since the Second World War. An obnoxious and loud boss often gets his/her way more than someone who is less self-assured.

If they punch above their weight, there should be much more room for opposing power. Elites and the like, as a matter of fact, may not have as much power as we assume. This opens up an interesting quest about the (mis)perceptions of power. Powers that be may have a misinformed self-perception about their power. They, after all, pretend to be more powerful than they really are. Equally, subordinates, other states, non-elite groups, and so forth think that units of powers have more power than they really do. They have much more potential to challenge power than they do. Instead, they stop short of a challenging it. Hence, based on an ‘objective’ analysis of power – control over resources, economic and political domination in the geopolitical sphere – there is a misperception of power.

Yet, there is a twist to the misperception of power. Since others than the powers that be also have a misperception, elites and the like are nevertheless granted more power than ‘objectively’ justified. In the end of the day, the subjective notion of power makes their power real. Awareness about the limits of power may actually contribute to this. In certain cases, the powers that be may have a rather well informed perception of their power. They know that they are vulnerable and that they don’t have as much powers as others think. They punch above their weight to disguise this. But since this message conveys that they are powerful, the misperception of power becomes a correct perception. They are really more powerful than they really are.