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Power and Pandemics

Over the past week of the #COVID-19 pandemic, many of my colleagues have written wonderfully helpful articles on how to cope (https://cfir.ca/2020/03/18/a-psychologists-tips-to-mentally-cope-with-covid-19/) and connect without physical contact (https://cfir.ca/2020/03/23/5-ways-to-connect-socially-during-covid-19-self-isolation/). I’d like to do something a little different, so I’m going to talk about power. So, take a (virtual) walk with me, and we’ll find out a bit more about power in the time of the COVID-19 pandemic; who has it, who needs it, and what to do with it if you’ve got it.

Power relations (i.e., social power) can also play a role in helping or hindering any attempt to your attempt to sway others into adopting, implementing, and adhering to COVID-19 social distancing policies. Social power, though difficult to define, can be understood as the capacity to influence others, even when they attempt to resist influence (Forsyth, 2009). In an early analysis of the roots of power that still holds today, French and Raven (1959) identified six critical bases of power: reward, coercive, legitimate, referent, expert, and informational power. Group members who control these bases of power are more influential than those who do not (Forsyth, 2009). Let’s focus on a few that might be most useful for getting your friends, family, and loved ones to #socialdistance.

One kind of power that you might possess is referent power – influence based on group member’s identification with, attraction to, and respect of others. Someone who commands referent power is a person meriting respect, is admired by others in the group, and is a nice, likeable person. For example, a person may achieve high levels of referent power by being a social leader (i.e., the one that plans the Skype parties), or someone who others look up to for any number of reasons. The person who is attempting to influence people around them to #socialdistance can do so by simply asking them to socially distance. When individuals with referent power ask for compliance, their followers are often happy to oblige (Weber, 1921/1946). Put simply, people like you, they hear what you say, and they’re open to it.

Another base of power is expert power. This one refers to an influence that is based on others’ beliefs that the individual possesses superior skills and abilities in some relevant dimension. Here, we’re looking at you if you’re a medical doctor, a nurse, a public health professor, or any other person working in a field where other people assume that you have relevant knowledge on the merits of social distancing. If you’ve got that kind of power (like so many ER doctors we’ve seen in recent days on social media), merely suggesting that social distancing occurs, many people are likely to comply, as they might assume that “the expert knows best.” This could be one reason so many of these posts have been made. 

The final base of power, informational power, is influence based on the potential use of informational resources such as factual data and rational arguments. For example, the early adopter of social distancing can increase adherence to social distancing by showing others the data regarding its efficacy (e.g., anyone who has shared #FlattenTheCurve information). This will help some people adopt social distancing who might otherwise not have done so.

So, think about which of those sources of power might apply to you or people you know. Getting people into the social distancing mindset might not be easy, but it sure is essential. These power tactics might just save a life.

Finally, it’s completely normal to be concerned or experience stress and anxiety from the growing challenges we are facing from COVID-19, but it’s essential to stay calm, be prepared, and stay informed. Right now, our clinicians at CFIR are offering secure video and teletherapy sessions to new and existing clients. Please reach out if you would like to have a safe, confidential therapy session from the comfort of your own home. 

For additional information and important updates related to COVID-19, please refer to the following links:

Brent Mulrooney, M.A.S.P. is a therapist at CFIR (Toronto). He works with individuals and families to improve family functioning and relationships, work and school success, as well as anxiety, depression, and anger problems. He also work to alleviate problems associated with substance use, learning difficulties (including ADHD and Learning Disabilities), bullying, trauma, violence, grief and loss, transitions in life, self-esteem, gender identity, sexuality, and intimate relationships.