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Power can have a major influence on how we receive, provide, and respond to information. In an important contribution to marketing research, HKUST’s Linying Fan and colleagues show how feeling powerful—a fundamental psychological state—can affect consumers’ construction and reception of communications. They propose a novel psychological mechanism, “need-for-justification,” or consumers’ expectation that a choice or decision must be explained.

“Communications are central to marketing and consumer behavior,” the researchers tell us. Consumers discuss products with others, read others’ online reviews of product experiences, watch YouTubers discuss products, and so on. Accordingly, researchers have sought to understand how contextual factors and consumer motivations affect the construction and reception of communication.

Extending this research, the authors asked how a pervasive element of social structure, feeling powerful, affects consumers’ construction and reception of marketing communications. Perceived power can reduce individuals’ “perceived need to justify their statements or beliefs,” say the authors. This is, however, only half of the story. “What happens if these high-power individuals […] become receivers of others’ communications?”

The authors propose that if receivers in a dialog perceive themselves to be powerful, they will appreciate messages with the same low level of justification as their own. Meanwhile, these individuals “may have expectations that others need to offer greater justification,” as they expect a high level of deference from others.

To examine these propositions, the researchers conducted six studies involving numerous participants to explore how power influences communication. These studies included tasks within various scenarios that assessed the participants’ power perceptions, levels of justification, and expectations. For example, in Study 2, the “participants were instructed to put themselves into the role of a person in a story,” such as an employee, depending on the level of perceived power assigned to them.

From these extensive studies, the authors first concluded that when communicating, people “need to justify their position to others and the justification they expect from others.” High power reduces the perceived need to justify one’s position and thus leads to “more concise language and a lower reliance on rational-based arguments.” However, when those with high power receive messages, they “want others to provide messages with more justification.”

By revealing this relationship between power and need-for-justification, the study makes two novel contributions. “First,” say the researchers, “we uncover a novel means by which a sense of power can shape communications and consumer behavior.” The study confirms that those who feel they have more power have less desire to justify their positions. The feeling of confidence brought by power means that such individuals do not feel the need to explain themselves. Second, the authors find an asymmetry in the construction versus reception of messages. “For receivers,” they say, “a high-power state increases their need-for-justification from others.”

The insights provided by this study will be valuable not only for researchers but also for marketers. By recognizing the importance of power in communication, they can tailor their marketing efforts accordingly, and carefully consider the levels of justification they include in their messages.