The Paradox of Power

A flat-out fascinating article from Jonah Lehrer (author of many such articles) from this past […]

David Zahl / 8.17.10

A flat-out fascinating article from Jonah Lehrer (author of many such articles) from this past weekend’s Wall Street Journal about the nature of power. Some of us might contend that power simply reveals the natural state of man, etc, but regardless, there are some positively Beatitudinal forces at work here. I’ve heard about studies that show CEOs to have similar personality maps to psychopaths, but I always figured that was urban legend. One can only imagine how clergy would fare in these tests (ht JD):

From prostitution scandals to corruption allegations to the steady drumbeat of charges against corporate executives and world-class athletes, it seems that the headlines are filled with the latest misstep of someone in a position of power. This isn’t just anecdotal: Surveys of organizations find that the vast majority of rude and inappropriate behaviors, such as the shouting of profanities, come from the offices of those with the most authority.

Psychologists refer to this as the paradox of power. The very traits that helped leaders accumulate control in the first place all but disappear once they rise to power. Instead of being polite, honest and outgoing, they become impulsive, reckless and rude. In some cases, these new habits can help a leader be more decisive and single-minded, or more likely to make choices that will be profitable regardless of their popularity. One recent study found that overconfident CEOs were more likely to pursue innovation and take their companies in new technological directions. Unchecked, however, these instincts can lead to a big fall.

“It’s an incredibly consistent effect,” Mr. Keltner says. “When you give people power, they basically start acting like fools. They flirt inappropriately, tease in a hostile fashion, and become totally impulsive.” Mr. Keltner compares the feeling of power to brain damage, noting that people with lots of authority tend to behave like neurological patients with a damaged orbito-frontal lobe, a brain area that’s crucial for empathy and decision-making. Even the most virtuous people can be undone by the corner office.

Why does power lead people to flirt with interns and solicit bribes and fudge financial documents? According to psychologists, one of the main problems with authority is that it makes us less sympathetic to the concerns and emotions of others. For instance, several studies have found that people in positions of authority are more likely to rely on stereotypes and generalizations when judging other people. They also spend much less time making eye contact, at least when a person without power is talking.

Although people almost always know the right thing to do—cheating is wrong—their sense of power makes it easier to rationalize away the ethical lapse.

This suggests that even fleeting feelings of power can dramatically change the way people respond to information. Instead of analyzing the strength of the argument, those with authority focus on whether or not the argument confirms what they already believe. If it doesn’t, then the facts are conveniently ignored.

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7 responses to “The Paradox of Power”

  1. bls says:

    This is really, really interesting – and explains a lot.

    Our bosses really are unhinged, then….

  2. bls says:

    (Actually, though – I've known and worked for several CEOs who are far more empathetic and sane than mid-level types in the same organization. Perhaps local power is even more corrupting than absolute?

    It would be interesting to see some research on that, in fact….)

  3. Wenatchee the Hatchet says:

    I have been thinking a lot about how conflicting views of a church often seem to rise from a contrast in trajectories. People who are on an upward trajectory in the leadership or culture of a church are often willing to overlook significant or insignificant problems in leadership or church culture because they are getting what they want. People whose trajectory within a church have either peaked or is on the decline "suddenly" stop excusing in the church the things they excused before. I don't speak from abstraction about this since I am close to many people who are currently inside and outside a very big church and have displayed this propensity. One of my friends who used to excuse things six years ago looks back on regret at some of the things that he genuinely thought were okay that he considers abusive now. That said, too many American Christians fool themselves into thinking they would be the exception and not the rule in the ecclesiastical equivalent of the Milgram experiment.

  4. bls says:

    That's a pretty interesting observation, too, WtH; organizational behavior is really fascinating to me.

    I wonder why "people in positions of authority are more likely to rely on stereotypes and generalizations when judging other people"? Is it because when you have no power, you have to work harder to figure out what's going on – and when you have it, you don't really have to bother? I'd be interested in seeing that study.

  5. paul says:

    "Power simply by being-in-being unfailingly brings hurt to someone, and never can do none."
    ("Morning Noon and Night", by James Gould Cozzens, p. 355)

  6. bls says:

    But everybody in the world will hurt other people at some or many points in their lives, quite often without meaning to at all. It isn't limited to those with "power" – unless we're using that word in a pretty broad sense.

  7. Grant says:

    interestingly, you make the distinction that CEOs have “similar” personality maps as psychopaths, when it would also be true that some CEOs are in fact psychopaths, if only by sheer statistical probability. But equally likely due to the fact that psychopaths lack any capacity for empathy and are without equal in their capacity to fool others with “good behavior” in order to get what they want. So perhaps, once they have what they want their utilitarian need to fool others in order to achieve/acquire is no longer required.

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