The Power Paradox: Does Absolute Power Corrupt Absolutely?

Power

© Adam Petto

In our tour of the abuses of power, it is clear that when it comes to ethical behavior, it is the wealthy and powerful who don’t play by the rules.

If Machiavelli’s saying “It is better to be feared than loved” is the most widely-known power maxim (and largely wrong), Lord Acton’s “Power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely” is a close second. Lord Acton’s thesis has now been tested in hundreds of scientific studies. These studies have documented what brief shifts in power do to our patterns of thought and action. They have ascertained what hailing from a privileged background of wealth, education, and prestige—societal forms of power—does to our social behavior.

The evidence is clear: Should we lose sight of the other-focused practices that make for enduring power, Lord Acton’s thesis prevails. As we enjoy elevated power, or rise in the social-class ladder, we are more likely to eat impulsively and have sexual affairs, to violate the rules of the road, to lie, to cheat, to shoplift, take candy from kids and to communicate in rude, profane and disrespectful ways. Absolute power does indeed corrupt absolutely. The experience of power destroys the skills that gain us power in the first place.

In these findings the power paradox strikes us with full force: The very practices that enable us to rise in power vanish in our experience of power. We gain and maintain power through empathy, but lose our focus on others in our experience of power. We gain and maintain power through giving, but act in self-gratifying and often greedy ways when feeling powerful. Dignifying others with expressions of gratitude is essential to enduring power, but once feeling powerful we become rude and offensive.

The costs of diminished empathy and the moral sentiments are considerable. We lose the passions that give rise to the various forms of altruism and cooperation that are vital to enduring power. The less powerful are more likely to find themselves around more powerful people who are disconnected to their concerns—a source of stress that accompanies states of powerlessness.

In this corrupting influence of power, we lose perhaps the strongest, most reliable source of meaning and happiness in life: numerous studies have found that empathy, compassion, gratitude, and elevation and the acts of altruism they inspire are powerful determinants of enduring happiness and good health. In directing our attention to our own desires and interests, feelings of power actually undermine our own self-interest. And most germane to Lord Acton’s power corrupts thesis, this diminishing of the moral sentiments sets in motion a cascade of outward abuses of power.

Compassion Muscles

My tests of these predictions focused first on social class. In a first study, participants reported on how much compassion they felt on a daily basis. The finding was clear: It is the poor who reported feeling more frequent and intense compassion for others throughout the day.


As my work on the abuses of power unfolded, I came to believe that experiences of power and privilege are like a form of brain damage, leading us to self-serving, impulsive behavior.


The causes are certain to be many: The poor are more dependent upon one another to get to work, take care of a sick child (because poverty makes children more sick), or make the neighborhood feel safe. The poor encounter more suffering in their daily lives, from job loss to chronic pain, to hungry children, to police harassment and brutality.

The end result is that if you peer into the minds of a poor or rich person at any moment during the day, it is the poor individual who will be feeling more compassion, feeling greater concern for other people. When we have less in the world, we must depend on others, and this gives rise to enhanced feelings of compassion. This loss of compassion is most clearly one of the costs of power and privilege, diminishing our basic concern for others, which is vital to trust and closeness in relationships.

In a next study, students at Berkeley viewed a one-and-a-half-minute video about children suffering from cancer. The videos were full of images of children in hospital settings with drawn faces and wisps of hair. Our intentions were anything but subtle: We wanted our participants to confront some of the most evocative images of human suffering a person might encounter. Once again it was the poor who reported greater compassion.

In other analyses, I looked at how social class influences the activation in the vagus nerve—the largest bundle of nerves in the human body—which evolved in part to support caregiving behavior. It stimulates muscle movements in the throat and head, allowing people to focus their gaze on the person in need and to communicate with the face and voice. The vagus nerve extends to the heart and lungs, allowing for deeper breathing and heart rate deceleration so that people can act in calm fashion on behalf of others who suffer or are in need. Studies from my lab consistently find that vagus nerve activation leads to increased sharing, cooperation and altruism—necessities for enduring power.

And in our study it was the participants who had grown up poor who showed a strong response in the vagus nerve when viewing images of children with cancer. People who had grown up with greater wealth, education and prestige showed little response in this caregiving bundle of nerves, much as they showed little activation in empathy-related regions of the brain when considering the thoughts and feelings of others.

Acquired Sociopathy

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When we lose our focused attention on others, the foundation of empathy and the moral sentiments, we become more driven by our own selfish desires. I first encountered this dynamic relation between self and other focus in a kind of brain trauma I was studying as my research on the abuses of power got off the ground. It goes by the name of “acquired sociopathy.”

People acquire sociopathy most typically due to a traumatic accident—a car crash, a bike wreck or falling off a roof—that shakes the head with such force that the frontal lobes are damaged, the very regions of the brain that allow us to empathize and think actively about others. After such accidents, once upstanding, kind people will transform into garden-variety sociopaths, prone to the purest expression of self-serving impulses—they will make sexual passes at strangers in front of their spouses, shout profanities at their kids, shoplift, go on spending sprees or get caught having sex in public.

As my work on the abuses of power unfolded, I came to believe that experiences of power and privilege are like a form of brain damage, leading us to self-serving, impulsive behavior.

In my first study on this theme I asked whether power influences how we eat. Eating involves a delicate balance between selfish impulse and a focus on others: reflexive chewing, the opening and closing of the mouth, and the release of saliva are constrained by norms of politeness, reminding us not to eat with our mouths open or wolf food down in fist-sized bites. Guided by these notions, my research team spent several months coding the videotapes of our participants eating, focusing on the following impulsive behaviors: the degree to which the mouth is open, the number of lip smacks and lip licks and the number of crumbs that fall out of the mouth.

When we presented teams with a designated supervisor with a plate of cookies—with one cookie more than the number of people on the team—the findings could not be clearer: It was the high-power participants who were nearly twice as likely to grab a second cookie, with their peers looking on, and to eat in more impulsive fashion. They were more likely to eat their cookies with their mouths open and lips smacking, and crumbs tumbling down onto their sweaters, apparently little concerned about what others might be inclined to think. Power not only leads us to take more than others, it turns up the volume on the expression of a basic impulse—how we eat our food.

Power Cheating

Building upon this result, studies would find that power leads to all manner of impulsive behaviors. For example, sex, like eating, involves striking a balance between being guided by selfish desires and constraining our actions according societal norms that require attention to the interests of others. And in large-scale surveys of nationally representative samples, it is people who have grown up with wealth, education and prestige who are more likely to express their sexual impulses.

Specifically, it is observed that upper-class children are more likely to play sexual games, upper-class young women are more likely to masturbate, upper-class young adults are more likely to experiment with nontraditional forms of sexual behavior—oral and anal sex. Between the ages of 25 and 50, upper-class adults are more likely to be having sex.


In the early 2000s, US shoplifters took about $13 billion of goods from retailers each year, and 11% of Americans confessed to the act. Themes of power were present in the data: Whites were more likely to shoplift than Asians, Latinos, and African Americans. And yes, the wealthy were more likely to shoplift than the poor. 


In many ways, these are healthy forms of expression that empowerment enables. But absolute power can also lead people to express self-serving sexual impulses that prove to be costly to others, such as acts of sexual infidelity. The best estimates are that 25-40% of men and 20-25% of women will have a sexual affair during marriage. As pleasurable as sexual affairs are, they are a primary reason for divorce, which is now considered one of the five or six risk factors that predispose the developing child to emotional, social and academic difficulties.

The experience of transient power also increases participants’ endorsements of unethical actions. People feeling powerful were more likely to say it’s OK not to pay taxes. That there’s nothing wrong with over-reporting travel expenses. Or speeding on highways. With power our morals begin slipping away. Such power-related moral lapses are not only costly to the rest of society; they are a primary reason we lose the respect and esteem of others.

These findings led me to carry out a series of studies testing the hypothesis that it would be the rich and not the poor who would behave in more impulsive, unethical fashion. These studies, conducted in the field as well as the lab, would demonstrate that it is the powerful who are more likely to break the law—for example, drivers of our wealthiest cars ignored pedestrians 46.2% of the time, compared to none driving a more modest model—lie and take candy from kids.

Social Consequences

When these findings were published, impassioned emails came flowing in. Some people were enraged. They sent expletive-filled missives, railing against Berkeley communists, welfare queens, immigrants ruining the US and halfwits and sociopaths in prison.

More often I received tales of the ethical lapses of the wealthy. Contractors who couldn’t collect from well-to-do clients. Police officers being lectured by drivers of BMWs after pulling them over for traffic infractions. Wealthy clients who never said “thank you” or who failed to tip during the holidays. Stories from financial advisers of the super rich, and assistants to CEOs, and the outrageous ethical lapses they had observed.

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Other scientists would email, noting similar findings they had happened upon in their studies. For example, in one study researchers surveyed over 43,000 adults in the US between 2001 and 2002, seeking to identify the profile of the shoplifter. In the early 2000s, US shoplifters took about $13 billion of goods from retailers each year, and 11% of Americans confessed to the act. Themes of power were present in the data: Whites were more likely to shoplift than Asians, Latinos, and African Americans. And yes, the wealthy were more likely to shoplift than the poor. 

In our tour of the abuses of power, it is clear that when it comes to ethical behavior, it is the wealthy and powerful who don’t play by the rules. In terms of grabbing food, expressing sexual impulses, driving recklessly and lying, cheating and communicating in rude fashion, it is the powerful and privileged who disregard social rules, often at the expense of others and the norms that bind people to one another. When moved by the feelings of absolute power as we move through the day, we are likely to leave a wave of everyday social injustices in our wake.

These abuses of power are the heart of the power paradox, and so many problems of social living. When we act in greedy fashion, cheat on our spouses, act deceptively at work, offend our colleagues and friends or tell stories that demean, it’s a safe bet that we have just succumbed to the power paradox of letting absolute power undermine our efforts to make a difference in the world and enjoy the esteem of others. Absolute power does indeed corrupt, in problematic ways for our social lives.

*[Excerpted from The Power Paradox by Dacher Keltner. Reprinted by arrangement with Penguin Press, a member of Penguin Group (USA) LLC, A Penguin Random House Company. Copyright © Dacher Keltner, 2016.]

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.

Photo Credit: Adam Petto


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