Tuesday, November 27, 2007

How power corrupts

We all know Lord Acton's famous maxim: Power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely, and most people know almost instinctively that it is true. Now, thanks to Shankar Vedantam, whose WaPo aricles on human behavior are almost always interesting, we have more insights from psychology experiments about the mechanisms through which this happens.

New research suggests that leaders emerge or are chosen not because they are ruthless but because they have skills at managing social relationships. "Something happens to people once they acquire power, however, and the transformation appears to be psychological." One experiment had volunteers remember a situation in which they felt powerful and others to remember situations in which they felt powerless. Those who remembered power were then given more power by being given control over the distibution of goodies while the powerless were left to guess what they might receive. Then the volunteers were asked to draw the letter "E" on their foreheads. Those without power drew the letter so others could read it, but the powerful drew it as it would appear if they were looking at it from inside their own heads.

The point? "[v]olunteers made to feel powerful, even in a trivial laboratory experiment, almost instantly lose the ability to see things from other people's points of view."

Dacher Keltner, a social psychologist at UC Berkeley, expresses the paradox thus: "power simplifies our thinking. We tend to see things in terms of our own self-interest, and it makes us more impulsive. We forget our audience in service of gratifying our own impulses."

In additon, as Vedantam puts it, "people who lack power tend to be more accurate in guessing the opinions of those around them, whereas those in power tend to be inaccurate. Because subordinates are also hesitant to tell superiors things they do not want to hear, the problem gets worse, with powerful people having even less input and perspective about how others think and feel." Having power allows you to ignore the viewpoints of others -- eliminating the social skill that led to your having power in the first place.

These are simple experiments that may not get to the full complexity of power, but they offer insights that comport with what most of us can observe every day. Every POTUS has to some extent lived in a "bubble," simply unable to see much of the world outside it and not really caring much. We've seen similar behavior by top business executives.

If you ever read Solzhenitsyn's great novel "First Circle," there's a probably fictional (S didn't have access to his inner thoughts of course, but was conjecturing) portrait of Stalin at the height of his power and yet to some extent inwardly miserable -- paranoid, unable to trust anyone including his closest associates, forever expecting plots against him (after all that was how he clawed his way to power) and unable to have a real friendship or confide in anyone. Power makes one anti-social and miserable, yet people crave it and it is almost addictive.

All the more reason to work toward a social system in which the minimum possible number of people -- maybe nobody -- has coercive power over others. It's for their own good.

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