Nice people acquire power and are then corrupted by it

Paul Raven @ 16-08-2010

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? ]

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5 Responses to “Nice people acquire power and are then corrupted by it”

  1. Robert Koslover says:

    Paul, by citing Wall Street, I think you are improperly associating power (and the corruption that comes with it) more closely with business and finance than with government. Here’s some basic truths about human nature for you: Most ambitious people (whether for good or bad!) are motivated by one or more of these three things: (1) power, (2) money, and (3) fame. In general, people who set money as their highest priority tend to go into business. People who seek power most of all tend to go into government. And people who seek fame most of all tend to go into the arts, entertainment, academia, or other potentially publicity-generating careers. Of course there are many exceptions, and few humans actually get to achieve significant amounts of power, money, or fame at all, regardless of their career choices! But that does not invalidate the aforementioned trends. Thus, if you seek to criticize evil power-holders (or power-seekers in general), then government is definitely the proper target. Likewise, if you wish to attack or insult the rich or money-seeking, then you should rightfully criticize businessmen. And finally, if you wish to mock those who primarily lust for attention, then you should criticize actors, singers, writers, bloggers, preachers, professors, etc.
    p.s. As a real-world working example, I have sometimes interviewed young science graduates who are unsure about whether they should seek employment with the government, industry, or academia, all of which hire scientists. I ask them simply, “well, which do you want most: power, money, or fame?” Ultimately, once they confess a clear preference for any one of those three, the proper career choice falls into place. Best regards.

  2. Paul Raven says:

    Given recent events in the US, Robert – I’m thinking quite specifically of the subprime crash, the bailout, and everything since – it looks to me (and, I suspect, a lot of others) that it’s Wall Stree wearing the trousers in this relationship, not the government! Same on this side of the pond.

    Of course there’s nothing intrinsically wrong with seeking money or power or fame. The point I was trying to make is that the investors and dealers of Wall Street are not only controlling the fate of an entire planet, but seem completely ignorant and uncaring of what effects their mistakes might have… which struck me as pretty much a textbook example of the sort of psychological blindness that the article was talking about. 🙂

  3. Chad says:

    Wall Street definitely had the power during the current debt crisis, as they certainly didn’t have the money considering they were going bankrupt. If you compare what was done with what should have been done this conclusion is inescapable (see link).

    http://www.ritholtz.com/blog/2010/08/bailout-counter-factual/

    The triumverate suggested doesn’t hold water. If it were true the majority of the Wall Streeters would retire early, as at some point you can easily buy every thing you want…unless you want power. Then you need more money.

    On top of that, the best way to positions of power within the government is not by starting in the government. A lot of true power players in government come from outside of government (Rumsfeld, Kennedys, Bushes, Roosevelts, Geithner, Paulson, Romney, Reagan, etc.). The triumverate is far to simplistic.

  4. coin says:

    So, this essentially means that psychopaths are good at playing nice as long as they are powerless?

  5. Wintermute says:

    Was thinking the same thing. Of course people at the bottom of the totem pole are going to “appear” nicer; they have to be to ascend in the ranks. To reach a position of power you have to be good at PR, at putting on a mask of niceness s that people will promote you. This does not mean that you are *actually* a nice person inside, the ruthless sociopathology might be buried by a functional sunny facade. And silently backstabbing the other rats in the race to get ahead while no one is watching seems a pretty common practice. Once you reach a position of power, however, there’s no need for all the brown nosing and secrecy, and the true colors start to come out.

    The Wall Street Journal is I think generally biased towards preaching to the rich and powerful narratives of themselves that they want to hear. “I’m really a terrific, moral person, I’m just a victim of this terrible burden of the corner office and 50 million dollar bonuses and all this power. It’s not my fault, blame the power.” Well f*** you, you’re still 9th-circle-of-hell waste and deserve to be in prison (even though you won’t be because Wall Street owns the government).