Sunday, October 23, 2011

Three Myths About Power

Does Power Corrupt? source
The reign of Libyan dictator Muammar Qaddafi came to an end last week at the hands of a combination of rebel and UN forces. Qaddafi-- at least according to the American news media and some of his own people--was widely considered a tyrannical ruler who stifled free expression and democracy during his 40 years of rule. Whenever I think of men like Qaddafi, the social psychologist in me can't help but think that the situation has created the tyrant we now know-- that there is something about power that changes people, and transforms them into ruthless and oppressive individuals.

This explanation fits our narrative about power nicely, but it actually doesn't hold up well to empirical investigation. In today's blog I discuss three myths about power. We come to believe these myths based on anecdotal evidence, even though they don't seem to hold up to empirical investigation.

Myth #1: Power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.
I've written about this myth in past posts on the blog (here and here). Basically, we have the anecdotes that support this myth well in hand: countless Governors, Presidents, and Senators have engaged in immoral and unlawful action, and it is easy to believe, based on this evidence that power is a special corrupting force that renders even the most saintly of men into a sinner.

This simply isn't true when put up to the lens of empirical investigation. One classic studies comes to mind: In 2001, Professor Serena Chen and her colleagues examined how selfish v. selfless individuals would behave when put in positions of power. Chen and colleagues gave participants in their experiment control over resources and punishments of another individual (or not) and then measured aspects of their personality. The personality measure assessed the extent the participant tended to be communal-- a selfless sharer of goods, favors, and resources-- or exchange oriented-- a selfish calculator of what one is owed by others. Participants were then given an opportunity to help another participant during the experiment. The results were definitive: selfish powerholders were selfish during the experiment, failing to help their partner during the experiment. Selfless powerholders on the other hand, actually continued to be selfless and helpful even when they were given power. The moral of this story: Power doesn't corrupt everyone. 

the Working-Class President source
Myth #2: There is only one kind of power, and you either have it or you don't.
A lot of our stories about power suggest that there is only one kind. When we think about our coaches, political leaders, and managers we often think of examples of individuals who are large in physical size, most often male, respected and admired by their peers, and who make most of the decisions. For instance, Abraham Lincoln--the prototype for a US President-- was tall, male, respected, and made decisions. It's easy, based on this thought process, to think their is own one type of power or status.

Research on the other hand, suggests that there are many different types of power and status. For instance, physical dominance may mean you are a man with high levels of testosterone, but this might not help you make decisions in the board room where physical stature has less influence. Similarly, if we look harder at our politicians we might remember that many of these individuals have power to make decisions even when they are not respected or admired (President Obama's latest approval ratings illustrate this nicely). Finally, a person may have decision-making power even when they come from families that are low in socioeconomic status (Lincoln is a good example here). All told, research is beginning to suggest that power and status are much more context-specific than we realize.

Myth #3: You must lie, cheat, and steal your way to the top!
Think for a moment about a time that you might have been passed over for a promotion in favor of one of your rivals. Why do you think you were passed over? Probably because the other person was scheming their way to the top by breaking at least 2-3 laws and 3-4 of your moral rules. The reality is that getting to the top of a social hierarchy is a little less sinister then this. It's less about being unethical and more about appearing competent.

Two lines of research suggest that appearing competent matters for status attainment. In the first, Professors Cameron Anderson and Gavin Kilduff (2009) showed that people are nominated to leadership positions when they appear to be competent. That is, independent of their actual ability to solve problems, if a person simply appears to know how to solve problems in social group settings (by offering suggestions and expressing ideas) he/she will be nominated to a leadership position. Other work finds that we tend to nominate Narcissists to leadership positions (Rosenthal & Pittinsky, 2007). This makes sense given that Narcissist are likely to have an inflated sense of their own competence, ideas, and problem-solving abilities.

I hope this summary of the myths of power can give you hope, more than anything else, about the leaders of tomorrow. It turns out that leaders are not universally corruptible, that power in one setting doesn't mean power in another, and that you're not being passed over by immoral jerks at work (not exclusively at least)! Are there other myths about power that I've missed? I'd love to hear about them in your comments! 

Chen, S., Lee-Chai, A., & Bargh, J. (2001). Relationship orientation as a moderator of the effects of social power. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 80 (2), 173-187 DOI: 10.1037//0022-3514.80.2.173


  1. Power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely (“Myth #” removed).

    One has to be very careful about the methodology of social experiments such as Professor Serena Chen’s. In short, it gave exactly the results I would have expected IN THE SHORT TERM.

    Problem is, when people agree that “Power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely” most understand that this process occurs over time, generally at least a number of years. My observations of this process on several occasions certainly showed this time lag.

    Nor is there any mystery as to the evolutionary reasons for this hard wired behavior - powerful/successful people who exploit their power historically reproduce much more successfully (when you count ALL their children and look at the number and success of their grand children).

    Stephen Heyer

  2. Interesting points Stephen, and it is important to consider this research as an examination of short term power. To that point I think that we can conclude that the mere presence of power does not corrupt nice people. Over time, that's another question.

    In fact, that upper-class individuals (those who have lived in environments of chronic high status and control) are more selfish and less empathic than lower-class individuals could be considered evidence that over time, power may indeed corrupt.

    I'm not sure about your last point though, from an evolutionary point of view, how does exploiting power lead to better reproduction? Don't powerful people reproduce well regardless of whether they exploit others? I'd love to hear more!

  3. I'd be interested also to see if powerful careers attract a certain "type" of person. I.e. power doesn't necessarily corrupt, but perhaps already corrupt people are attracted to situations of large opportunity.

  4. Hi Rebecca,

    There is research by Jennifer Overbeck of USC (I believe) suggesting that people rise to power in organizations that fit their personalities. That means for example that extraverted people tend to be bosses at sales jobs, whereas more introverted people become bosses at software jobs.

    The upshot of this research is that if there is an immoral cloud surrounding your company, the company is likely to promote people with poor character.

  5. Some points in addition to those raised above:

    I have also read about studies showing that higher status/power people have a strong tendency to only listen to others of high status and ignore those of lower status. Also that people do things for individuals, not for people in general. This is why charities have a poster child, rather than talking about the number of people who need help. What all this adds up to is exactly what people have been complaining about: the our leaders do things for their friends and peers, not for the general good.

    While I have not read any scientific studies confirming it, I also agree that people in power seem to become more disconnected from other people over time. Apparently just about every American president listens less and less to differing opinions over time and surrounds himself with more "yes" men. The state governors whose popularity ratings I have been able to track also show declines after they become "lame ducks": apparently they become less interested in doing what the pubic wants.

    I do think that solutions are possible. Getting our elected officials out of their isolation in the Capitols and back to meeting regular people should help. People respond best to encouragement rather than threats, so giving politicians perks and bonuses based on popularity rather than how well they satisfy party bosses and rich campaign donors could also improve things.

  6. Michael - you asked: "Are there other myths about power that I've missed?"

    How about the power of the Wealthy Elite amongst our society, Michael? It is unarguably true that the power they believed to be intact will; in the not-too-distant-future, prove to be a myth as well!

    Now, here are a couple of types of Power that are NOT myths; and will never be myths:

    "Never Underestimate The Power Of The Good."

    "The Power of Positive Thinking"

    And the biggie, Michael: "The Power of God."

    In your last paragraph, you wished that your "summary of the myths of power can give us readers hope about the leaders of tomorrow."
    Although it is a noble gesture, Michael, I fail to correlate the examples you cited to giving rise for having hope about the leaders of tomorrow. Conversely, the track record of the leaders has been quite bad since I've been on the planet. I'm just not grasping the concept of your equation here. Because it surely is no myth that the leaders have been instrumental in causing our country to go to hell in a hand basket, to coin a phrase. It's probably why kids these days don't have much hope. Look at the world we're handing down to them.

  7. Rosemarie Wilson.

    Power is relative, more a state of mind and will power. You only have power over anyone or anything, as you are permitted.