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Pamela Smith, Phyllis and Daniel Epstein Chancellor’s Endowed Faculty Fellow and Associate Professor of Economics and Management

Pamela Smith

Power and its impact on interpersonal relationships and perception of the self is a major focus of study for Pamela Smith, Associate Professor of Economics and Management and Phyllis and Daniel Epstein Chancellor’s Endowed Faculty Fellow at the Rady School of Management. Her research on power, status and gender representation in academia has further cemented the school’s reputation as a bastion of scholarship.

The dynamics of power: Busting myths, revealing insights

Egotistic CEOs. Greedy corporate raiders. Ruthless media moguls. Difficult clients.

Movies, TV shows and books are rife with characters who wield immense power, usually to the detriment of others.

Power in real life is more complicated and nuanced, as Pamela Smith has found.

In her multiple lines of research, Smith has sought to understand the mechanisms that explain how differences in power, status and influence occur and the effects they have on our daily lives, and how they impact our interpersonal and intrapersonal relationships. Her work has illuminated the effects of power on an individual’s thinking, motivation and behavior as well as the signals people use to determine how much power they and others have.

An astute observer

Growing up in a working-class neighborhood in suburban Detroit, Smith observed power and the powerful from a distance. It seemed improbable to her at that time that she would ever be in a position of power at any point in her life.

“I was very aware that there was hierarchy all over the place. I didn’t grow up with the expectation that I would have much power in life,” said Smith, one of the first in her family to go to college. “Powerful people were separate from me.”

An exceptionally high achieving student, Smith made her way to the University of Michigan and majored in psychology and creative writing. At first, she wanted to become a therapist and pursued volunteer work to prepare for it. However, that changed when she started assisting graduate students with their research. After graduation, she found work as the manager of a psychology lab.

“The rigor, exposure to sophisticated statistical techniques, and just the experience of the day-to-day of research, it was an amazing opportunity. I was located in this building full of researchers doing fascinating work. It made me realize that this is what I wanted to do for the rest of my life.”

When Smith was accepted into the doctoral program in social psychology at New York University, her interest in the notion of power took an academic turn. As she did a deep dive into the literature on the topic, she began to question some findings.

“A lot of the research on power in psychology focused on how power makes people bad, how it makes them cognitively lazy, makes them selfish, mean to others and corrupt,” Smith said. “Could this be an exaggeration? How much have we really proven that power makes people lazy, selfish, or mean? Are there other ways to understand the data?”

There was one way to find out and that was to conduct her own research.

Blazing new trails

Upon receiving her doctorate in social psychology, Smith spent five years teaching and conducting research at the University of Amsterdam, Leiden University and Radboud University Nijmegen in the Netherlands. Once she was back stateside, she joined the Rady faculty in 2009. It was a heady time to be part of an institution that was carving out its niche as a leader in business education.

At Rady, Smith continued to build on her body of research. Her extensive work on power and status has yielded fascinating insights into everyday behaviors. Does refusal to help others impact your social influence? Yes. Are people who use emojis perceived as less powerful? Yes again. Is it possible to feel both powerful and as having low power at various times in a single day? True.

Smith is putting into practice what she learned about creative research design from her professors at NYU. In her study Power in Everyday Life, Smith and her collaborator Wilhelm Hoffman of the University of Cologne used experience sampling where they contacted study subjects at random times of the day and had them answer questions on what they were thinking and doing.

 “We wanted to see what happens in people’s daily lives,” Smith said.

The researchers found that people experienced both power and powerlessness in a variety of daily situations. In other words, high-power positions were not reserved for the privileged few. They also found that feelings of low power negatively affected mood and cognition. And contrary to negative stereotypes of powerholders, higher power was associated with greater feelings of responsibility.

In Power and Perception of Choice, published in Social Psychological and Personality Science, Smith was interested in how people with power view those around them. She and her fellow researchers found that people with power see others as having choices, regardless of their actual situation. Setbacks in life are viewed by the powerful as other people’s fault.

“For example, people with power would be more likely to blame the poor and unemployed for their circumstances,” Smith said. “If powerful people are assuming others have a lot of agency in these situations, regardless of whether that’s true, they will be less likely to support policies to help them out.”

Smith has also forayed into issues of gender parity in psychological science. She was among a group of researchers who examined gender differences in psychological science across 10 issues including pay, career advancement, feeling lack of belonging, agency, harassment and incivility. In their study published in Perspectives in Psychological Science, the researchers found that while gender gaps in attaining tenure and earning doctoral degrees had narrowed over time, women were still lagging behind in other areas such as representation in senior positions. They were less likely to submit, renew and hold grants. Their rates of citation and publication rates were lower compared to men.

A Boost to research

In recognition of her impressive scholarship, Smith was named Phyllis and Daniel Epstein Chancellor’s Endowed Faculty in 2020. The award has elevated her ability to support her students’ research projects and help them become independent researchers.

“When students come to me with great ideas, it’s been such a relief to be able to tell them ‘Let’s work something out, let’s figure out how to collect data on this,' ” Smith said. “Having the fellowship gives us the space. Sometimes we hit on really interesting stuff.”

One such example is a study now underway by Smith and a Ph.D. student that’s investigating stereotypes about what power does to people.

“Though people often quote the truism that “power corrupts,” to what extent do people truly hold this belief?” she questioned. “What other perspectives do people have on what power does to those who have it?”

Another study is focusing on the widely held idea that power is usually given to bold and impulsive people who seem unconcerned about what others think of them.

“With my students, I am looking at how much this is actually true,” Smith said. “For example, do we prefer to give power to people who seem to lack self-control? Do we prefer to give power to people who break rules and violate norms? In the long run, I want to understand what barriers, both internal and external, prevent people from pursuing positions of power. I also want to understand more deeply how we make choices about which people should gain power.”

Teacher. Mentor. Advisor.

Smith is a sought-after teacher at Rady whose impact on students lasts long after they leave campus. 

“I have received the most direct feedback from students who took the Power and Politics class with me,” she said. “I have heard from many of them that they approach their careers differently after my class. They now appreciate the need to plan strategically for their future. Most notably, they appreciate the critical role of relationships with others in their career progress. Students have been especially appreciative of the perspective I give them on how to tackle conflicts with others.”

Smith, mom to a seven-year-old, loves spending time outside of work with her family.

“I have already instilled a love of science in my kid. I have attended many talks on Zoom during the pandemic, and he has been known to lean over my shoulder and ask questions about a graph or chart.” 

Besides teaching and research, Smith is involved in several initiatives at Rady as well as the broader UC San Diego campus. She serves as a member of the social and behavioral science committee for the UC San Diego Institutional Review Board, as well as a member of the university’s Committee on Diversity & Equity. She is also on the editorial board of respected academic journals.

“Much of the structure of academia requires unpaid contributions from faculty, and I deliberately strive to do my share,”  Smith said. “Of course, one advantage of my service work is it allows me to influence how both UC San Diego and my field develop and grow. Thus, I choose service work that fits my priorities — helping solid research progress and be[ing] published, and ensur[ing] that various institutions are more diverse, inclusive, and equitable.”