October 24, 2017
March on Rome

How Power Corrupts Us

by Peter Jaret  

“Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely,” the British historian Lord Acton famously said in the 19th century. Lately, new psychological research has shone a surprising light on exactly how having power corrupts and changes people—and how we can wield influence without compromising our best instincts. UC Berkeley psychology professor Dacher Keltner, PhD, author of The Power Paradox: How We Gain and Lose Power (Penguin 2016), describes the latest findings and what we can learn from them.

First, what exactly do we mean by power?

Most people think of power as money, or military might, or political power. Machiavelli, in his famous treatise on power, The Prince, focused on strength, ruthlessness, coercion. But as researchers, we’ve broadened our thinking to include more subtle forms of power. The power of ideas, for instance, or the power of innovation. Martin Luther King, for example, practiced nonviolence. He wasn’t rich. But he was enormously powerful. Today we view power as one’s capacity to alter the state of another person or other people. This new way of thinking about power recognizes that everyone is going to have power in their lives at some point, at work, at home, or in their communities.

What does your research show about what happens to people when they begin to influence power?

I call the phenomenon “the power paradox,” the title of my book. People often rise to power because of good qualities they possess—the ability to work with others and to listen, for example. But as they gain power, they lose these good qualities and begin to behave in troubling ways. Two things change. First, when people get power, they tend to become less empathetic, less sensitive to what other people are thinking or saying. Second, when people feel that they have power, they tend to become more impulsive. People are less interested in what others think of them, more focused on their own desires, and they tend to act more impulsively.

How do these changes play out in people’s actions and behavior?

It’s not a pretty picture. In one of our studies, we had subjects sit down in a face-to-face conversation with someone who talked about experiences that had caused them suffering. Participants with a greater sense of power experienced less distress and compassion. In other words, they were less empathic. The same was true in a study in which people were shown images of suffering—kids suffering from cancer, for instance. People with a greater sense of power had less activation of a part of the brain that helps us connect to one another.

To test impulsivity and empathy, we did an experiment I call “the cookie monster” study. Groups of three people were brought into the lab. One person was assigned to be the leader. In the lab, the group was given a group writing task. About a half an hour into their work, we brought a plate with four cookies—one for each person and one extra. Who took the fourth extra cookie? In almost all cases it was the person who’d been made the leader. And they were more likely to eat with their mouths open and dropping crumbs. Another study looked at motorists. Drivers of the least expensive cars always yielded right of way to pedestrians in a crosswalk. People driving luxury cars like BMWs and Mercedes yielded only about half of the time. We see it in study after study. People in power are more likely to swear at their colleagues. Wealthy kids are more likely to shoplift. Other studies show that people in positions of corporate power are much more likely to interrupt coworkers and even say insulting things at work.

Is there anything we as individuals can do to use power more humanely?

First, it’s important to be aware that power has this paradoxical effect. Recognize that when you’re older or you move up the organizational ladder, you have a power advantage. People will be intimidated by you and even anxious or afraid of what you think or do. And you’ll tend to become less empathetic and more impulsive in negative ways. Then try to counter some of the effects that we’ve documented in research. Since power tends to diminish your empathy, focus hard on being a good listener and being open to other people. Power tends to make people greedy. So go out of your way to share power and resources with those around you. Power tends to make people rude and uncivil. Research shows that people in power are more likely to engage in inappropriate sexual behavior, something we’ve seen in the headlines a lot recently. If you’re in a position of power, always remind yourself to treat people with respect. In a sense, be humble.

Your research comes at a time of great inequality in terms of wealth and opportunity—power and powerlessness—in the U.S. What can society do avoid abuses of power?

I’ve been struggling a lot with that question. Not having power has many negative consequences. Powerlessness is associated with stress, anxiety, depression, impaired immune response and impaired brain development. Inequality hurts marriages, it undermines friendships, it sows distrust among people. One obvious form of power is money, or economic power. Obviously we could change the tax structure and minimum wage rules to make society more equitable, and we would change people’s lives for the better. There’s also cultural power, giving people the power to participate in culture through a good education. We can do that. We can change the criminal justice system to eliminate inherent racism. All of those are important. I’m also interested in what I call psychological power. Every human has a chance to be mindful, to practice gratitude, to find beauty in nature, to give to other people. All of those things are very good for health and well-being, and can counter the negative effects of both power and powerlessness.

This opinion does not necessarily reflect the views of the UC Berkeley School of Public Health or of the Editorial Board at BerkeleyWellness.com.