Thursday, 10 April 2014

The Psychology of Power and Corruption

One of the central questions concerning power is, who gets it? Researchers have confronted this question for years, and their results offer an argument against the Machiavellian view of power (the idea that people who are willing to manipulate, deceive, backstab, intimidate, and undermine others to get power, usually get it). Instead, research reveals that a person’s ability to get power, even in small group situations, depends on their ability to understand and advance the goals of other group members. When it comes to power, social intelligence i.e. reconciling conflicts, negotiating, smoothing over group tensions always prevails. It is the more outgoing, energetic and socially engaging individuals who quickly garner the respect of their peers and quickly rise through the ranks of social and business hierarchies.

But what are the psychological reasons behind this idea? Researchers believe it comes down to this: “we accomplish most tasks related to survival and reproduction socially (together), from caring for our children to producing food and shelter. We give power to those who can best serve the interests of the group”.

“Social intelligence” is essential not only in rising to power, but in keeping it. Dr Cameron Anderson studied the structure of social hierarchies within college dormitories over the course of a year, examining who is at the top and remains there and who falls in status. He consistently found that it is the socially intelligent individuals who keep their power over time. In more recent work, Cameron has found that modesty may be critical to maintaining power. Individuals who are modest about their own power actually rise in hierarchies and maintain the status and respect of their peers.

So what is the fate of Machiavellian group members who are willing to deceive, backstab and intimidate others in their pursuit of power? Researchers find that these individuals don’t actually rise to positions of power. Instead, their peers quickly recognize that they will harm others in the pursuit of their own self-interest, and tag them with a reputation of being harmful to the group and not worthy of leadership.

Power Corrupts.

Interestingly, studies also show that once people assume positions of power, they’re likely to act more selfishly, impulsively, and aggressively, and have a harder time seeing the world from other people’s points of view. Simply put, the skills most important to obtaining power and leading effectively are the very skills that deteriorate once we have power.

For instance, studies have found that people given power in experiments are more likely to rely on stereotypes when judging others. Predisposed to stereotype, they also judge others’ attitudes, interests, and needs less accurately.

Research has also found that power encourages individuals to act on their own whims, desires, and impulses. When researchers give people power in scientific experiments, those people are more likely to physically touch others in inappropriate ways, to make riskier choices and gambles, to make first offers in negotiations and to eat cookies like the Cookie Monster, with crumbs all over their chins and chests.

Perhaps most unsettling is the wealth of evidence that suggests having power increases the likelihood of our leaders fulfilling the symptoms for a diagnosis of a sociopath. High power individuals are more likely to interrupt others, to speak out of turn, and fail to look at others who are speaking. Surveys of business organisations find that most rude behaviours, like shouting, swearing and blunt critiques, emanate from the offices and cubicles of individuals in positions of power.

Possibly going a little too far, one researcher suggested that people with power tend to behave like patients who have damaged their brain’s orbitofrontal lobes; a condition that seems to cause overly impulsive and insensitive behaviour. So through gaining power, you also lose that part of your brain which is critical to empathy and socially appropriate behaviour!


This leaves us with a power paradox. Power is given to those individuals who advance the interests of the greater good in a socially intelligent fashion.

Yet unfortunately, having power renders many individuals as impulsive and poorly attuned to others needs, making them prone to act abusively and lose the respect of their peers. What people want from leaders is social intelligence, but ironically, this is exactly what is damaged by gaining power.

Lord Acton once said "Absolute power corrupts absolutely"….

If you want to gain and maintain power, please take note.

Friday, 21 March 2014

I love what I do

This one is a little different. Recently things have been hard. I am the type of person who believes winning is of the uth most importance, I hate losing. But over the past few months things haven’t been going my way and I have lost more than my fair share of battles. I recently began comparing myself to others, my friends are all beginning their professional careers and are getting well paid for it. They have wonderful lifestyles and live in exuberant locations. Me, I’m a 26 year old, underpaid assistant psychologist. I live in the middle of nowhere, far away from friends and family…. I constantly say to myself that I need to change career, that I would receive a much higher reward for my efforts elsewhere. Considering the amount of work I put in, I would certainly already be successful in another field….

But then little things happen. When I go to work, money leaves my thoughts. I can honestly, hand on heart say, I have never looked at the clock and said “hurry up 5 o clock”. People’s lives are in my hands, people self-harm in front of me every day. People who have a mother, a daughter, a brother and who have been successful in their own lives……

 I have been spending time with a person with dementia (a progressive illness where a person’s memory, language and other cognitive abilities slowly deteriorate, and there is very little you can do to halt this progression; there is no cure). This guy (let’s call him George, he’s 60 years of age) struggles to communicate with anyone, has no idea where he is, sometimes he thinks he is at work. But at some level (in my subjective opinion) George knows he is deteriorating and knows he is in a mental health hospital. Because of this he can spend days with his head in his hands slouched over in the corner of a room, highly depressed. His family want nothing to do with him. George has no friends outside of hospital. He is in hospital until he dies. George can say two words, “yes” and “no”…. So six months ago I began to find out about this man, George likes art and David Hockney. I started to spend time with him. All I did was sit with George and talk about art. I used to bring in pictures of his favourite artist's work and blabber on about what I liked about the picture, what it meant for me…. I began to notice that over time, George’s reaction to me when I arrived to see him became more emotional. He now cries when I enter his room. But for others, the big improvement is George’s communication. He can now say full sentences, he can ask for a drink when he’s thirsty (before this he used to beat the shit out of people because he was dehydrated and didn’t have the ability to communicate he wanted some water. It used to take up to 5 people to restrain him). He now spends time painting. But for me the biggest improvement is that George doesn’t spend his days hunched over in the corner of a room with his head in his hands, and depressed. Instead he sits up proud… George wasn’t a patient referred to me, just someone I took an interest in. All I did was stimulate his brain by helping him to reminisce over art work and probably connected past times. This all stimulated his long term memory, George’s cognition, and is probably why he is now able to talk…. This all links to why he is now proud again, he was a successful human being, a successful artist, and like me, a winner that hates losing... Apparently dementia is a progressive illness..... It's the big things. I love what I do.