Those who break Rules are Rulers

People who detain power can often act however they want and get away with it. Does the reverse also hold true? If we acted however we wanted, are we perceived as more powerful? The study of Van Kleef and his colleagues tried to figure this out by conducting four studies, and all four supported their hypothesis that violating norms show power. Violating norms show that people have power because they have the power to act how they want despite societal constraints.

Study 1: The Coffee Can

The first study involved participants watching a scenario in which the actor violates the norm (or not) at a city hall waiting. In the norm-violating condition, the actor got up and took a cup of coffee from the personnel’s can when the service desk was empty. The one who took the coffee was rated higher in the norm-violation scale and was perceived as having more power according to both the power adjectives scale and the power statements scale. This first study demonstrated that even though people might demonstrate negative behaviors, they are still perceived as having more power.

Study 2: The Bookkeeper

In order to examine the generalizability of the effect, Van Kleef and his colleagues reproduced another scenario where a bookkeeper in one condition violates norms by talking about bending the rules in their financial report and in the other where the bookkeeper tries to sort out the mistake in the financial report. Just like the first study, the bookkeeper who violated the norm was rated higher in the norm-violation scale and was perceived as having more power.

Study 3: Feet on the Chair and Ashes on the Floor

Norm-violation (top) and control condition (bottom)

A little bit different from the previous studies, the researchers used a video paradigm and a new knowledge that they acquired. Research on emotion stereotypes found that people with more power are expected to react with more anger to negative events. In the norm-violation condition, the actor in the video the actor had his feet on another chair, smoking his cigarette while dropping ash on the floor. When the waiter comes to take his order, he responds without being polite. The participants then learn that he received the wrong order and the participants were asked to guess how angry the actor would get. As predicted, the actor was perceived as having more power in the norm-violation condition and the actor was also expected to feel more anger then the control condition.

Study 4: Feet on the table

The fourth and final study studied whether the theory would work if the interaction happened face-to-face. The participant participated in a study where there were two confederates, one who violated norms by being late, throwing their bag on the table and putting their feet up on the table and the other who did not. The participants were then asked to assess both the confederates and without much surprise, the norm-violating confederate was also rated as having more power.

Ultimately, the four studies that the researchers conducted were able to demonstrate that people who violate norms CAN be perceived as having more power. This is interesting because it gives us another perspective to how people get to their position of power. That is perhaps why people often have to do something out of the norm (whether positive or negative) in order to be seen as having more power than others.


Van Kleef, G. A., Homan, A. C., Finkenauer, C., Gündemir, S., & Stamkou, E., (2011). Breaking the Rules to Rise to Power: How Norm Violator Gain Power in the Eyes of Others. Sage, 1–8.

Like what you read? Give Sindy Leung a round of applause.

From a quick cheer to a standing ovation, clap to show how much you enjoyed this story.