Once again, research results seem to reinforce the oldest aphorisms in the book… which would be more gratifying, perhaps, if they weren’t the aphorisms we tell to commiserate over the fundamental brokenness of the social and political systems we inhabit. It turns out that nice people are far more likely than nasties to ascend to a position of power and authority… but once they get there, that power corrupts them, and they become reckless, selfish and unpleasant [via BigThink]. Who knew?
“It’s an incredibly consistent effect,” Mr. Keltner says. “When you give people power, they basically start acting like fools. They flirt inappropriately, tease in a hostile fashion, and become totally impulsive.” Mr. Keltner compares the feeling of power to brain damage, noting that people with lots of authority tend to behave like neurological patients with a damaged orbito-frontal lobe, a brain area that’s crucial for empathy and decision-making. Even the most virtuous people can be undone by the corner office.
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.
Turns out it’s all about self-justification:
In a recent study led by Richard Petty, a psychologist at Ohio State, undergraduates role-played a scenario between a boss and an underling. Then the students were exposed to a fake advertisement for a mobile phone. Some of the ads featured strong arguments for buying the phone, such as its long-lasting battery, while other ads featured weak or nonsensical arguments. Interestingly, students that pretended to be the boss were far less sensitive to the quality of the argument. It’s as if it didn’t even matter what the ad said—their minds had already been made up.
This suggests that even fleeting feelings of power can dramatically change the way people respond to information. Instead of analyzing the strength of the argument, those with authority focus on whether or not the argument confirms what they already believe. If it doesn’t, then the facts are conveniently ignored.
Sound familiar? As in, remind you of pretty much every director or upper-echelon manager you’ve ever worked for, anywhere? Yeah, me too.
Now, how much of that is due to a Stanford Prison Experiment type of situation, i.e. people playing up to an arbitrary role as it is defined in the collective subconscious (we know bosses act like ass-hats, so when we’re told to play the boss, we act like an ass-hat), and how much of it is due to some genuine qualitative difference in perception that comes from being elevated into a more exclusive and powerful cadre or subsection of a social group?
[ The irony of this article appearing in the Wall Street Journal is almost palpable. I can just imagine loads of investment bankers reading it, tutting quietly and shaking their heads, doubtless reminded of someone that little higher up on the pyramid than themselves. Oh, how the mighty have fallen, hmm? ]