The Wall Street Journal examines how positive psychological attributes are associated with people gaining power and why these exact same attributes might be eroded once people have achieved a certain level of influence.
The piece looks at studies that show, contrary to popular belief, that sly and social devious people are less likely to be put in positions of influence by their peers but that when the psychological effect of power takes hold, these same people start to become less honest.
A few years ago, Dacher Keltner, a psychologist at the University of California, Berkeley, began interviewing freshmen at a large dorm on the Berkeley campus. He gave them free pizza and a survey, which asked them to provide their first impressions of every other student in the dorm. Mr. Keltner returned at the end of the school year with the same survey and more free pizza. According to the survey, the students at the top of the social hierarchy—they were the most “powerful” and respected—were also the most considerate and outgoing, and scored highest on measures of agreeableness and extroversion. In other words, the nice guys finished first….
Why does power lead people to flirt with interns and solicit bribes and fudge financial documents? According to psychologists, one of the main problems with authority is that it makes us less sympathetic to the concerns and emotions of others. For instance, several studies have found that people in positions of authority are more likely to rely on stereotypes and generalizations when judging other people. They also spend much less time making eye contact, at least when a person without power is talking…
[In another experiment] Participants in the high-power group considered the misreporting of travel expenses to be a significantly worse offense. However, the game of dice produced a completely contradictory result. In this instance, people in the high-power group reported, on average, a statistically improbable result, with an average dice score that was 20% above that expected by random chance. (The powerless group, in contrast, reported only slightly elevated dice results.) This strongly suggests that they were lying about their actual scores, fudging the numbers to get a few extra tickets.
It’s probably worth saying that almost all of these studies have been completed on American undergraduates and if there’s any area of human behaviour that is likely to influenced by culture, the effect of power and social influence is going to be one of the first.
For example, there are lots of well-known studies in cross-cultural differences in business ethics and sociologist Geert Hofstede’s ‘power distance’ measure (an acceptance of the inequality of power relationships that differs between countries) has been shown to alter a whole range of perceptions and behaviours.
However, I also wonder about how the ‘micro-culture’ of groups makes for a completely different environment in which power is played out.
In a recent study on treating trauma in ex-paramilitary and guerilla forces in Colombia, a group in Bogotá noted that “recruits who showed signs of weakness (a dimension of strength) or tried to evade service (loyalty) were sometimes assassinated” and that “During the instruction phase, the importance of not placing trust in others is reinforced (mistrust), as is the tenet that one must not show weakness (strength), lest they risk being killed.”
It’s not that hard to imagine how being considerate and outgoing probably doesn’t predict leadership potential in such units.
Although perhaps an extreme example, it would be interesting to see which aspects of the group (purpose? authority enforcement? motivation for membership?) would alter how power affects the individual.