How Power Corrupts the Mind

Pity the despot.
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(Carolyn P Speranza / Flickr)

While at Columbia University, Andy J. Yap set up a simple experiment. After manipulating his subjects into powerful or weak states (in the lab, psychologists are the most powerful ones of all), Yap asked them to guess the height and weight of others both in person and from photographs.

"When people feel powerful or feel powerless, it influences their perception of others," said Yap, who is now a postdoctoral researcher at MIT.  According to their understanding, we judge the power of others relative to our own: When we feel powerful, others appear less so --and powerlessness and smallness often go together in our minds. 

It is true that CEOs tend to be taller than the average person, and there are estimates that for each inch a person is above average height, they receive $789 more a year. Sure enough, in the study, the powerful people judged others to be shorter than they really are.

Yap's conclusion nicely illustrates what we've always known anecdotally: Power gets to our heads. A decade of research on power and behavior show there are some predictable ways people react to power, which can be simply defined as the ability to influence others. While power in governments and across the world can come at incredible costs, in a lab, it's surprisingly simple. Asking a person to recall a time he or she felt powerful can get them in the state of mind. There's also the aptly named "dictator game," in which a participant is made powerful by putting them charge of doling out the compensation for another participant. 

Researchers have even found you can make someone feel power just by posing them in a dominant, expansive body position. Like athletes, for example: Arms outstretch, back arched. Even blind athletes have been known, upon victory, to strike the same pose. They didn't learn it by seeing anyone do it. There's something fundamental.

Power isn't corrupting; it's freeing, says Joe Magee, a power researcher and professor of management at New York University. "What power does is that it liberates the true self to emerge," he says. "More of us walk around with kinds of social norms; we work in groups that exert all pressures on us to conform. Once you get into a position of power, then you can be whoever you are."

This manifests in several different ways. For one, the powerful are seen to be less likely to take into account the perspective of others. In one experiment participants were primed to feel powerful or not, and then asked to draw the letter "e" on their foreheads. The letter can be drawn so it looks correct to others, or correct to the person drawing. In this case, high-powered people are two to three times more likely to draw an "e" that appears backwards to others. That is, they were more likely to draw a letter that could only be read by themselves.

Power lends the power holder many benefits. Powerful people are more likely to take decisive action. In one simple experiment, it was shown that people made to feel powerful were more likely to turn off an annoying fan humming in the room. Power reduces awareness of constraints and causes people act more quickly. Powerful people also tend to think more abstractly, favoring the bigger picture over smaller consequences. Powerful people are less likely to remember the constraints to a goal. They downplay risks, and enjoy higher levels of testosterone (a dominance hormone), and lower levels of cortisol (a stress hormone).

Presented by

Brian Resnick is a staff correspondent at National Journal and a former producer of The Atlantic's National channel.

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