Bases of power

Dissecting types of power

Decorative only

John R.P. French and Bertram Raven were social psychologists interested in the concept of power and how it can be developed or used.

In a 1959 study they defined the 'Bases of Power' as five distinct ways that influence can be exerted, with a sixth later added. The framework is a short-hand way of understanding what it is that moves people to action and, according to French and Raven's definitions:

Social influence is a change in the beliefs, attitudes, or behaviours of a person (the "target of influence") that results from the action of another person (the "influencing agent"). Social power is the potential or capacity of such influence.

Understanding power is essential to conceptualising how to move people to action and what levers or pulleys might be used to achieve this result. Power is also important to understand in the contexts that require effective sharing of responsibilities and control, such as co-design. The 6 types of power include:


Legitimate power is based on title or role: I am a doctor.


Expert power is based on knowledge or experience: I have been a doctor for thirty years.


Coercive power is based on negative outcomes if something is not done: Hold still while I do this test or it will hurt.


Reward power is based on positive outcomes if something is done: You'll get a lollipop after your flu shot.


Referent power is the belief that someone understands, or is like, you: I was also afraid of needles, too. I know how that feels.


Information power is about having knowledge that you don’t have: I know something that you don't know.

In understanding the bases of power, we must also recognise that power is not equal. How you use power is dependant on the individual and organisation - and can be used for negative or positive outcomes.

Ignorance of power in social influence leads to poor social outcomes.

Further reading: