Power Corrupts (Now With Science!)

The humor site Cracked rounds up some serious social science on the psychological effects of power and authority. The results are sobering—if not entirely surprising. When people in experimental environments were made to feel as though they were powerful—either by recalling actual instances for their lives or by being placed in simulated positions of power for a few hours—researchers found that they became less compassionate, less prone to take the perspective of others, more able to lie without feeling guilty about it, and more prone to consider themselves exempt from the rules and standards they righteously insist apply to others. What’s striking is how quickly and easily the experimenters elicited dramatic behavioral differences given that (unlike people who actively seek power) their “powerful” and control groups were randomly chosen.

It’s useful to keep this in mind because, while the overwhelming lesson of the last half century of social psychology is that situational influences can easily swamp the effect of individual differences in character, our political rhetoric takes scant account of this. Political campaigns focus heavily on questions of “character”—which especially in the case of “outsider” campaigns should be of limited predictive value. Republican candidates and officials try to portray Democrats as arrogant and out of touch, while Democrats cast Republicans as callous and greedy. In each case, the message is that these are bad people, and their character flaws are somehow related to their specific ideologies. The remedy is, invariably, to replace them in positions of power with better people from the other team. These social science results suggest that this is unlikely to work: The problem is power itself.