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.