It's Official: People In Power Act As If They Have Brain Damage
from the absolute-power-corrupts-absolutely dept
You’ve heard the phrase “power corrupts,” but have you looked at the evidence that suggests this is actually supported by a variety of studies? Julian Sanchez points us to a report that looks at some of the studies of people in power (which actually builds off of a Wall Street Journal article on the same topic — beware the paywall), which notes, first, that getting into a position of power is best done by being kind and empathetic (rather than nasty and backstabbing), but once you get there, study after study suggests that people lose some aspect of critical thinking skills:
“It’s an incredibly consistent effect,” [psychologist Dacher] 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.
While I have to admit that some of the studies used here sound a bit questionable on the methodology, and it sounds like a lot more comprehensive research can be done, it certainly explains a lot. Some of the studies are quite interesting, suggesting that people with even a fleeting feeling of power can start acting this way.
In a recent study led by Richard Petty, a psychologist at Ohio State, undergraduates role-played a scenario between a boss and an underling. Then the students were exposed to a fake advertisement for a mobile phone. Some of the ads featured strong arguments for buying the phone, such as its long-lasting battery, while other ads featured weak or nonsensical arguments. Interestingly, students that pretended to be the boss were far less sensitive to the quality of the argument. It’s as if it didn’t even matter what the ad said–their minds had already been made up.
So, even for pretend bosses, they suddenly felt like they could make snap decisions without caring about the details as much. Another interesting report looked at Supreme Court decisions, with a slightly scary result:
Deborah Gruenfeld, a psychologist at the Stanford Business School, demonstrated a similar principle by analyzing more than 1,000 decisions handed down by the United States Supreme Court between 1953 and 1993. She found that, as justices gained power on the court, or became part of a majority coalition, their written opinions tended to become less complex and nuanced. They considered fewer perspectives and possible outcomes. Of course, the opinions written from the majority position are what actually become the law of the land.
Jesse Walker suggests one reason why this might be outside of power corruption: “Perhaps as the justices’ status grows, they’re more prone to making their subordinates do their work.” Alternatively, you could argue that those who were in power felt they didn’t need to make as nuanced an argument, because it just wasn’t worth the time. That doesn’t mean the nuances weren’t there, though. Either way, a potentially interesting point, worthy of more research.
So, how do you fix the mess? Well, transparency seems to be the main suggestion — which is why it’s so troubling that our government seems to continually move away from transparency (even if it gives lip service to greater transparency). The WSJ article highlights how some basic transparency for those in power tends to actually decrease some of the more corrupt activities, while a decrease in oversight tends to lead to greater corruption. This is, of course, no surprise, but acts as yet another reminder for why greater transparency in government is important — and why those in power are so often against it.