|Did power lead to Arnold's infidelity? source|
We have many ideas about leaders in our society-- those individuals who have the capacity to influence the rewards and punishments of the rest of us. One of the more prominent opinions is expressed in the above quote. That is, powerful people are arrogant, selfish, greedy, immoral, and deceitful. Some research tends to support this perspective:
For instance, people placed in powerful roles are notoriously bad at taking others' perspectives. In one study, powerful individuals--when asked to draw an "E" on their forhead, drew the "E" to read for themselves rather than to read for another participant. As another example, powerful individuals are also seen as more self-interested than their low-power counterparts. More specifically, powerful individuals focus more intently on their own goals and motives, while resisting situational influences on their actions and intentions.
|The powerful response is on the left. source|
If all this research is correct, and power does indeed corrupt, that means our leaders are doomed to be a-holes (for lack of a better word). But is that really the case? Can we expect all of our leaders to engage in immoral, selfish, and deceitful action? Recent research suggests no.
In this research, a friend and collaborator-- Stéphane Côté (University of Toronto)-- and his colleagues examined how power in certain individuals actually leads to increased concern for others. In the research, Côté and colleagues reasoned that individuals who are particularly prosocial in nature--that is, people who tend to be more friendly, agreeable, and helpful towards others-- would be nice even when they were given power. In turn, Côté expected that these high-power prosocial individuals would be less likely to be selfish, and more likely to pay attention to, and accurately read others' emotions. In essence, nice guys who gain power will use it in nice ways. The evidence largely supported this perspective:
In the first study, Côté recruited individuals and assessed their resting respiratory sinus arrythmia, or vagal tone. Vagal tone is a measure of variability between heart beats-- an index in previous research of a larger cascade of physiological responses that allow individuals to orient to others, respond to others' needs, and to be sympathetic to others' suffering. In support of the hypothesis, vagal superstars--those individuals with heightened vagal tone-- who also had power, tended to be the most accurate judges of others' emotions in the study. In essence, power enhanced the niceness of nice people.
In a second study, Côté and colleagues examined the ability of individuals to recognize others' emotions who differed in terms of their occupational power (the decision making power they had at their job) and their agreeableness-- a trait measure of prosocial orientation. The results again supported expectations: Nice guys (or gals) who had power in their occupations tended to read others' emotions more accurately. In contrast, the low agreeable high-power individuals tended to be the worst at reading emotions.
In a final study, Côté and colleagues assigned participants to high or low power roles-- by giving them control of decision-making during an experiment. Participants were then asked to experience either a prosocial state-- where participants saw scenes of others in suffering or in need, as a means to motivate prosocial orientations to help-- or a neutral state. After these manipulations, participants were then asked to watch a video depicting a social interaction and to guess the emotions experienced during the interaction. Results again supported expectations: Individuals manipulated to experience power tended to be the best readers of others' emotions when they were manipulated to experience a prosocial state.
|High-power, prosocial individuals showed highest empathic accuracy (source)|
Overall, what does this research suggest? Contrary to popular belief, power does not corrupt absolutely. In fact, some people who have power can actually be some of the nicest and most compassionate. Perhaps as a society, we focus too much on when power leads to immoral actions among politicians, and this focus leads us to forget when power leads people to act in the best interests of others.
Can you remember the last time you saw power lead to prosocial action? Let us know in the comments!
P.S. I'll be discussing this research at the Annual Convention of the Association of Psychological Science in Baltimore this week!
Côté S, Kraus MW, Cheng BH, Oveis C, van der Löwe I, Lian H, & Keltner D (2011). Social power facilitates the effect of prosocial orientation on empathic accuracy. Journal of personality and social psychology PMID: 21463075