The Power of the Rebel

A series of experiments, published in this month’s edition of Social Psychological and Personality Science, has documented an effect you no doubt recognize from growing up – people who break the rules are perceived to be more powerful. I have strong memories of how the coolest people at school were often also the ones who broke the rules; they’d make risque jokes, they’d put their feet up on their desk, they’d cross the road against the light, they’d even occasionally skip class. It seemed like they weren’t as worried about getting in trouble as the rest of us.

Now researchers in Amsterdam show that it still works that way for adults. In four separate studies, they found that adults breaking rules or norms (socially accepted but unspoken rules) were considered more powerful by observers than those who dutifully obeyed. The rule-breakers were observed doing things like taking coffee from a city official who was out of the room, putting their feet up on a desk or chair, dumping cigarette ash on the ground instead of an ashtray, and breaking bookkeeping rules. Observers thought these rule-breakers were more powerful people, as well as more likely to be angry and not sad, and more approach-oriented. The effect was found across different types of experiments, as observers read about rules breakers in vignettes, or looked at them in pictures, or actually interacted briefly with them.

This connection between rule-breaking and power relates to dating, because research has found women are attracted to power in men. But before we head out and start breaking rules willy-nilly, lets think a little more about this effect. Simply breaking a norm won’t increase attractiveness. For example, let’s say I went out wearing a plastic bucket on my head and started throwing eggs at passers-by – though I’d certainly be breaking norms, I doubt I’d be a new sex symbol. It’s likely that only certain rules or norms can be broken with success – something science has yet to establish. Some clues may be found in related research on risk-taking: it has been found that people who take more risks are more attractive, but only certain types of risks, like standing up to peer pressure, or playing adventurous sports. In these studies, taking health risks like using drugs was not attractive. It needs to be determined which rules or norms specifically are OK to break.

Also consider why it is that rule breaking convey power. The study’s authors point out that powerful people can get away with breaking rules, and so when we see someone breaking rules, we assume they are powerful. However, by digging a little deeper we discover that it is not the act of breaking the rule that actually matters. What really matters is “volition capacity” (or acting of your own volition). Essentially, what matters is not that you broke a rule, but that you had the strength of character to do what you wanted. In fact, the rule only matters in that it gives you an opportunity to show that you do what you want – it gives you something to oppose. Breaking a rule that you don’t care about or agree with is a straightforward way to show that you are the sort of person who sticks to their convictions. But, if you think about it, we can follow a rule and still show volitional capacity – for example, by adhering to it in the face of opposition.

When it comes to dating, this research actually fits nicely within the current model we espouse here at Interpersonal Science. You don’t become more attractive by trying to play a bad boy in real life, purposely breaking rules in order to look cool. Instead, you take the time to understand yourself, recognize what you personally believe, and then act in accordance with it. Anxiety is a common barrier to being able to living in this authentic way – we let anxiety stop us from behaving how we wish, and doing what we actually want to do. Thus, increased self-awareness and treatment of anxiety leads to becoming naturally more powerful and authentic people, which in turn flows into improved dating success.


  1. Van Kleef, G. A., Homan, A. C., Finkenauer, C., Gündemir, C., & Stamkou, E. (2011). Breaking the Rules to Rise to Power: How Norm Violators Gain Power in the Eyes of Others. Social Psychological and Personality Science, 2(5), 500-507.