How power corrupts

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.

Link to WSJ article ‘The Power Trip’ (via, and indeed, by @jonahlehrer).

5 thoughts on “How power corrupts”

  1. I recall a study recently that observed how primates spent their attention in social situations. It was observed that the alphas were under constant scrutiny by the individuals of lower social rank, with the latter continually glancing over to monitor the position (and disposition) of the former.

    It’s plausible that one of the benefits of being a net receiver of attention is that you can effectively delegate a lot of the details of social interaction onto the people around you and not incur a noticeable negative effect. For instance, suppose I met a celebrity for the second time, I might forgive them for not remembering my name, and likewise they wouldn’t need to worry about alienating me.

  2. “(T)he 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….”

    But – without having looked at the study – couldn’t the direction of causation have worked the other way? Perhaps people ‘liked’ them more because they were powerful.

  3. I think it would be interesting to add a third group to the study, one that was aware of the ‘nice guys finish first (at first)& then change when they gain power’ dynamic. Aware, would the subjects continue their ‘nice’ ways or are they still likley to shift or perhaps engage in some masking behaviors?

  4. It seems that the societal views of power influence the behavior of the “powerful” as much as their own self-conception. In certain places, at certain times, there are little repercussions for abuse of power. The wealthier one is, the more powerful politically, academically or in business, the less likely the person has to pay for their crimes and abuses. Abuse of power in my opinion is a result of both individual characteristics (like “power corrupts” or whatnot) coupled with society excusing their behavior. (Or the justice system turning a blind eye to corruption and human rights abuses.)

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