Anecdotal evidence certainly suggests that the old cliché about power corrupting people is true. Stories about unethical, dishonest leaders appear in the newspapers — and the history books — with alarming regularity. But do we really know if people in positions of power behave more unethically than the general population? An array of social scientists has been trying to answer that question in recent years.
The answer to this question (like the answer to most such questions) is “it depends.” One thing is clear: A significant body of research demonstrates that power has transformative effects on human psychology. People feeling powerful think, feel, and act differently than people who feel powerless.
There’s also a rich array of empirical studies suggesting that people do take advantage of their power in both large and small ways. (The power may come from high income, position in an organizational hierarchy, social class or simply having more choices open to them.) They’re more apt to be rude, and they’re more likely to cheat. People driving expensive cars are less likely to stop for pedestrians, for example, and in a series of lab experiments upper-class individuals tended to lie more during a negotiation and cheat to increase their chance to win a prize.
Not only do the powerful seem to cheat more, it seems to come more naturally to them. A research project (still under review) with colleagues from Berkeley, Kellogg and Columbia revealed that participants who had been primed to feel powerful were better liars than those who had been primed to feel less powerful. That is, they were more likely to go undetected by the audience.
Where does the power-induced tendency to behave unethically stem from? Past evidence points to two primary factors: power lowers inhibitions and produces a higher-than-average self-focus. (A review paper in Current Opinions in Psychology that I wrote with Joris Lammers, Adam Galinsky, and Derek Rucker synthesizes this research.)
First, power disinhibits people, who in turn become less likely to respect social norms. For instance, Adam Galinsky found that participants made to feel powerful were more likely to turn off an annoying fan blowing in their face than participants made to feel powerless. Most people feel inhibited about cheating even when they have the desire to, but individuals experiencing a sense of power can overcome these inhibitions and push their actions to their advantage.
Second, power increases self-focus, which in turn tends to make powerful people prioritize their own needs over others’. For instance, people who make less than $25,000 a year give away 4.2% of their income, while people who make more than $150,000 give away only 2.7%. In a striking test of this effect, my colleagues from Kellogg and Columbia and I assigned participants to the role of employee or boss for a game that was part of an experimental session. Before the game started, we asked each participant to put together an assortment of Hershey’s chocolate from a set of chocolates and to prepare it either for a person of their choosing or for themselves. The results revealed that high-power participants bought significantly more chocolates when they bought for themselves (about 31 on average) than for another person (about 14 on average). In contrast, low-power participants bought more when buying for others than for themselves. These results suggest that having power tends to increase the importance people place on themselves relative to the importance they place on others.
What are the implications of increased focus on oneself for unethical behavior? Having power can indeed foster corruption — especially when the unethical behavior will benefit oneself. In contrast, lacking power will foster corruption when performing the unethical behavior benefits another. For instance, in one study, my colleagues and I induced states of power or powerlessness and then asked people to report their likelihood to engage in an unethical behavior that would benefit oneself vs. another person (e.g., lie about the reason why the participant — as opposed to one of his acquaintance — did not hand in a paper) and found that high-power participants were much more likely to lie when the lie benefited themselves than when it benefited another person. The opposite was found for low-power individuals: they cheated significantly more to “save” an acquaintance than to save themselves.
Lowered inhibitions and increased self-focus aren’t all bad. Leaders sometimes need them. A leader without inhibitions is more likely to speak up during a negotiation and secure good deals, object when witnessing an injustice, and push the whole organization to abide by ethical norms. A self-focused leader tends to be good at getting what he or she needs, including adequate resources inside the organization, and influence in the marketplace outside it.
But how can the negative effects of power — like the tendency to cheat — be mitigated? Unfortunately, we don’t have a single, straightforward answer. We do have evidence that leaders can learn “perspective taking.” In other words, they can develop the habit of asking, What does the person in front of me think and want? or If I were on the other side of the table, what would seem fair? or Would I want this decision to appear on page 1 of the Wall Street Journal? Perspective taking can easily be primed through short exercises or developed through training.
Overall, the idea that power invariably leads to corruption is clearly erroneous. Closer to reality is the idea that power transforms leadership behavior through two processes: disinhibition and self-focus. That knowledge can help us to understand when power will lead to corruption and when it will foster moral behavior, and it also points to fixers — perspective taking and empathy building.
David Dubois is an assistant professor at INSEAD.
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