Three myths about power

This week’s edition of Psych Wednesdays was written by Michael Kraus and was originally published on Psych Your Mind on October 23, 2011.

Does power corrupt?

The reign of Libyan dictator Muammar Qaddafi came to an end last week at the hands of a combination of rebel and UN forces. Qaddafi— at least according to the American news media and some of his own people–was widely considered a tyrannical ruler who stifled free expression and democracy during his 40 years of rule. Whenever I think of men like Qaddafi, the social psychologist in me can’t help but think that the situation has created the tyrant we now know– that there is something about power that changes people, and transforms them into ruthless and oppressive individuals.

This explanation fits our narrative about power nicely, but it actually doesn’t hold up well to empirical investigation. In today’s blog I discuss three myths about power. We come to believe these myths based on anecdotal evidence, even though they don’t seem to hold up to empirical investigation.

Myth #1: Power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.
I’ve written about this myth in past posts on Psych Your Mind (here and here). Basically, we have the anecdotes that support this myth well in hand: countless Governors, Presidents, and Senators have engaged in immoral and unlawful action, and it is easy to believe, based on this evidence that power is a special corrupting force that renders even the most saintly of men into a sinner.

This simply isn’t true when put up to the lens of empirical investigation. One classic studies comes to mind: In 2001, Professor Serena Chen and her colleagues examined how selfish v. selfless individuals would behave when put in positions of power. Chen and colleagues gave participants in their experiment control over resources and punishments of another individual (or not) and then measured aspects of their personality. The personality measure assessed the extent the participant tended to be communal– a selfless sharer of goods, favors, and resources– or exchange oriented– a selfish calculator of what one is owed by others. Participants were then given an opportunity to help another participant during the experiment. The results were definitive: selfish powerholders were selfish during the experiment, failing to help their partner during the experiment. Selfless powerholders on the other hand, actually continued to be selfless and helpful even when they were given power. The moral of this story: Power doesn’t corrupt everyone. 

The working-class president

Myth #2: There is only one kind of power, and you either have it or you don’t.
A lot of our stories about power suggest that there is only one kind. When we think about our coaches, political leaders, and managers we often think of examples of individuals who are large in physical size, most often male, respected and admired by their peers, and who make most of the decisions. For instance, Abraham Lincoln–the prototype for a US President– was tall, male, respected, and made decisions. It’s easy, based on this thought process, to think their is own one type of power or status.

Research on the other hand, suggests that there are many different types of power and status. For instance, physical dominance may mean you are a man with high levels of testosterone, but this might not help you make decisions in the board room where physical stature has less influence. Similarly, if we look harder at our politicians we might remember that many of these individuals have power to make decisions even when they are not respected or admired (President Obama’s latest approval ratings illustrate this nicely). Finally, a person may have decision-making power even when they come from families that are low in socioeconomic status (Lincoln is a good example here). All told, research is beginning to suggest that power and status are much more context-specific than we realize.

Myth #3: You must lie, cheat, and steal your way to the top!
Think for a moment about a time that you might have been passed over for a promotion in favor of one of your rivals. Why do you think you were passed over? Probably because the other person was scheming their way to the top by breaking at least 2-3 laws and 3-4 of your moral rules. The reality is that getting to the top of a social hierarchy is a little less sinister then this. It’s less about being unethical and more about appearing competent.

Two lines of research suggest that appearing competent matters for status attainment. In the first, Professors Cameron Anderson and Gavin Kilduff (2009) showed that people are nominated to leadership positions when they appear to be competent. That is, independent of their actual ability to solve problems, if a person simply appears to know how to solve problems in social group settings (by offering suggestions and expressing ideas) he/she will be nominated to a leadership position.Other work finds that we tend to nominate Narcissists to leadership positions (Rosenthal & Pittinsky, 2007). This makes sense given that Narcissist are likely to have an inflated sense of their own competence, ideas, and problem-solving abilities.

I hope this summary of the myths of power can give you hope, more than anything else, about the leaders of tomorrow. It turns out that leaders are not universally corruptible, that power in one setting doesn’t mean power in another, and that you’re not being passed over by immoral jerks at work (not exclusively at least)! Are there other myths about power that I’ve missed? I’d love to hear about them in your comments! 

Chen, S., Lee-Chai, A., & Bargh, J. (2001). Relationship orientation as a moderator of the effects of social power. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 80 (2), 173-187 DOI: 10.1037//0022-3514.80.2.173

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  1. With out a doubt this man changed over the years.All that power seems to transform these dictators into lunitics,posted from Fuquay Varina NC