Monday, May 23, 2011

Power Corrupts? Research Says, "Not Always..."

Did power lead to Arnold's infidelity? source
"Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely." Lord Acton (1887)

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
Anecdotal evidence also suggests that power corrupts. Recently, California Governator Arnold Schwarzenegger has been embroiled in personal scandal, and recent memory suggests that this type of immoral action is nothing new among the powerful (see here).

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


  1. And so the next question is whether prosocial people are disadvantaged when it comes to attaining power.

  2. That's a great question! And one that researchers have some answers for (thankfully). The short answer is that people can gain status by being nice to others-- that is, people who are more cooperative at work are also more respected.

    Of course, it seems that only those who are truly prosocial--at their core-- tend to remain so once they gain power. Thanks for reading!

  3. To some extent, the idea of "power corrupts" may be looking at the issue backwards. It seems like power tends to attract those who are self-centered.

  4. Thanks for your comment Christina, and I think there is definitely truth to what you are saying-- some people who are corrupt, or egotistical, or self-interested tend to seek power more than others. However, a lot of research suggests that the other direction is also true-- that when we give a person power in an experiment, they actually become more self-centered than they were before they were given power. It's bi-directional!

    Great comment!

  5. I've always thought that the Meek would never inherit the earth because the first self-centred person who asked for it would be given it.

    A wired tweet today concerned stock portfolios of US Reps beating the market consistently by 6%. Other studies I have read suggests that the corporate environment is a haven for sociopaths >Enron, Worldcom, even the latest IPO for LinkedIn was seriously undervalued for gain by those setting the price.

    It does seem that those with social responsibility are faced with some sort of glass ceiling in a corporate/political climate.

  6. Thanks for your comment! It's very intriguing: the notion of a glass ceiling in a corporate dog-eat-dog climate. I'd venture that the research hasn't been done to look at that specific question.

    What I do remember is research suggesting that elevated power also leads to the pursuit of context-specific goals and motives. Thus, if your corporation's goals are fundamentally self-interested, these goals are likely to shape the goals of those in power towards more selfish pursuits. Would a nice guy or gal rise to the top in that sort of corporate climate? Maybe not.

    Thanks for reading!

  7. Seems like power is a dangerous spiral of feedback loops, and when the individual is subservient to a greater power/collective then the 'other's perspective' gets marginalised.

    Who guards the jailers? Certainly seems like the US Reps are working with the corporations rather than for the 'people'