The news abounds with stories of powerful men behaving badly. It’s a depressing yet predictable spectacle – those in positions of power can’t help but help themselves to the help. They scream at underlings and have sex with the secretaries; they assault hotel maids (or at least are accused of such) and sleep with the nanny. The question, of course, is what motivates this awful behavior? Why does power corrupt?
Psychologists refer to this as the paradox of power. The very traits that helped leaders accumulate control in the first place all but disappear once they rise to power. Instead of being polite, honest and outgoing, they become impulsive, reckless and rude. 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 generalisations when judging other people. They also spend much less time making eye contact, at least when a person without power is talking.
Consider a recent experiment led by Adam Galinsky, a psychologist at Northwestern University. Galinsky and colleagues began by asking subjects to either describe an experience in which they had lots of power or a time when they felt utterly powerless. Then the psychologists asked the subjects to draw the letter E on their foreheads. Those primed with feelings of power were much more likely to draw the letter backwards, at least when seen by another person. Galinsky et al. argue that this effect is triggered by the myopia of power, which makes it much harder to imagine the world from the perspective of someone else. We draw the letter backwards because we don’t care about the viewpoint of others. We don’t give a shit what the maid thinks.
But here’s the catch: We still think we do care, at least in the abstract. That’s because power quickly turns us into hypocrites. In a 2009 study, Galinsky asked subjects to think about either an experience of power or powerlessness. The students were then divided into two groups. The first group was told to rate, on a nine-point scale, the moral seriousness of misreporting travel expenses at work. The second group was asked to participate in a game of dice, in which the results of the dice determined the number of lottery tickets each student received. A higher roll led to more tickets.
Participants in the high-power group considered the misreporting of travel expenses to be a significantly worse offence. 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 percent 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.
Although people almost always know the right thing to do – cheating is wrong – their sense of power makes it easier to rationalise away the ethical lapse. For instance, when the psychologists asked the subjects (in both low- and high-power conditions) how they would judge an individual who drove too fast when late for an appointment, people in the high-power group consistently said it was worse when others committed those crimes than when they did themselves. In other words, the feeling of eminence led people to conclude that they had a good reason for speeding – they’re important people, with important things to do – but that everyone else should follow the posted signs.
But perhaps you’re not convinced by these clever lab experiments performed mostly on undergrads. Perhaps you think the paradigms smack of artifice. One of my favourite studies of power corrupting comes from Deborah Gruenfeld, a psychologist at the Stanford Business School. She was interested in how positions of power altered our reasoning process. After analysing more than 1,000 decisions handed down by the United States Supreme Court between 1953 and 1993, Gruenfeld found that, as justices gained power on the court, or became part of a majority coalition, their written opinions tended to become less complex and nuanced. They considered fewer perspectives and possible outcomes. The bad news, of course, is that the opinions written from the majority position are what actually become the law of the land.
The larger lesson is that Foucault had a point: The dynamics of power can profoundly influence how we think. When we climb the ladder of status, our inner arguments get warped and our natural sympathy for others is vanquished. Instead of fretting about the effects of our actions, we just go ahead and act. We deserve what we want. And how dare they resist. Don’t they know who we are?
Image: Gwydion Williams/Flickr.