Monday, May 7, 2012

A Game of Thrones: Lessons About Status

In the Fall of 2012 I will be teaching a new course titled "Status, Power, and Influence" at the University of Illinois. I'm very excited about the topic and probably have too many ideas floating around in my head about what the course should cover. It is like being a kid in a candy store: In terms of course textbooks, there are literally dozens of great books about power and hierarchy!

Interestingly, my first thought about a textbook was the popular George R. R. Martin fantasy novel "A Game of Thrones" (now in its second season on HBO). Simply put, "A Game of Thrones" is all about power, status, and influence.

What are some of the lessons about social power that we can learn from the series? There are several, but I think the first lesson we learn in the series is that honesty and truth are not necessarily paths to high status.

[Spoiler Alert: For Those Who Haven't Seen Season 1 of "Game of Thrones," please avert your eyes!]

Now let me summarize what happened to Ned Stark, Lord of Winterfell, Warden of the North, and Hand of the King in Season 1 of "A Game of Thrones". In a nutshell, Ned comes down from his home in the North at the request of King Robert, who is a trusted friend, to help run the Seven Kingdoms of Westeros. What Ned doesn't realize is that the king is surrounded by scores of assassins, turncoats, and sellswords who are all out for their own personal gain. When Ned arrives, he quickly realizes that the King and the Kingdom are in danger, so he tries to right the ship: Ned calls everyone out on their lies and trusts that courage and honor will save the kingdom. Unfortunately, that doesn't work out for Ned, who is betrayed, ambushed, imprisoned, branded a traitor, and separated from his head in about two hours worth of riveting television.

Why did Ned Stark reach such a bitter end? And what can psychological research tell us about where Ned went wrong?

Ned was honest and true to a fault in his brief time as Hand of the King, and he ended up paying for this honesty. While Ned was being noble, the more cunning members of the King's counsel--who were better aware of how a person claims power and authority--were able to effectively turn Ned into the perceived enemy of the Kingdom. Research suggests that modern status hierarchies work in a similar way.

We might believe that it pays to be nice at work. That is, if I do other people favors at work, I'm likely to be perceived to be a good worker who will help others when they need it. This could even be a way for me to earn respect from my co-workers, and a promotion from my boss! Unfortunately, this isn't what happens for people who blindly help others at work. It turns out that helping everyone without keeping track of those favors is the right way to be taken advantage of at work, and actually can lead you to have no more respect than people who don't help other employees. How then, do you navigate status hierarchies at work?

The answer, research suggests, is by closely monitoring exchange relationships at work (e.g., who owes whom a favor). By being someone who is more aware of these exchange relationships, you can ascend the status hierarchy by offering help when it is needed, and refusing it when it is not in your best interests. Thus, a person who monitors exchange relationships at work can be seen as helpful and useful, without also seeming like a pushover.

In terms of the specific study that found this, Flynn and colleagues (2006) had MBA students gather data about their work habits from former co-workers. These participants then filled out their own self-monitoring abilities for understanding exchanges at work. As expected, the MBA students who were high in self-monitoring--that is, they were the kind of people who keep track of exchange relationships at work--tended to be seen as the most generous by their former co-workers, and as a result, tended to be rated higher in status than people who did not monitor exchange relationships at work.

2012 has been good to the Lannister family (source)
What could Ned Stark have learned from Flynn and colleagues? Well, he may have faired better (and been around longer) if he would have been more aware of all the alliances that surrounded him, and eventually did him in. Other characters who have been more aware of these schemes are still alive and in power.

Have you learned any lessons about status from A Game of Thrones? I'd love to hear about it in the comments!

The article:
Flynn FJ, Reagans RE, Amanatullah ET, & Ames DR (2006). Helping one's way to the top: self-monitors achieve status by helping others and knowing who helps whom. Journal of personality and social psychology, 91 (6), 1123-37 PMID: 17144769


  1. Hi Michael, I haven't had a chance to watch Game of Thrones yet (although it's on my list now, thanks!). The case we use to illustrate many of these points is LBJ. We only get to two chapters of Caro's (now 4 volume!!) biography, but it really illustrates clearly how LBJ was an extremely high self-monitor (changing opinions as quickly as he stepped out of one conversation and into another) as well as how he was relentless in doing favors for others, but also frequently calling those favors in.

    1. Hi Dave, That's fascinating RE: LBJ. I imagine that high self-monitoring is a huge advantage in politics! Thanks for reading!

  2. Are you actually going to use A Game of Thrones as a textbook for the course? As a college student, I think that would be fantastic!

    1. It probably won't make it as a textbook--GOT is a pretty niche audience after all. I may use some clips from the HBO show to bring the lectures to life!