The Corrupting Comforts of Power

The psychology of power is defined by two long-standing mysteries.

The first is why people are so desperate to become powerful. Although power comes with plenty of spoils, it’s also extremely stressful. In a study of wild baboons in Kenya, a team of biologists found that those alpha males in charge of the troop exhibited extremely high levels of stress hormone. In fact, the stress levels of primates at the top were often higher than those at the very bottom. There are easier ways to pass on your genes.

The second mystery is why power corrupts. History is pockmarked with examples of cruel despots, leaders slowly ruined by the act of leading. It's surprisingly easy to initiate this corrupting process in the lab. A 2006 experiment by Adam Galinsky and colleagues asked subjects to either describe an experience in which they had lots of power or a time when they felt powerless. The subjects were then asked to draw the letter E on their foreheads. Those primed with feelings of power were two to three times more likely to draw the letter in a “self-oriented direction,” which meant it would appear backwards to everyone else. (Those primed to feel powerless were more likely to draw the letter so others could easily read it.) According to the psychologists, this is because feelings of power make us less interested in thinking about the perspectives of other people. We draw the letter backwards because we don’t care what they see.

A forthcoming paper by the psychologists Adam Waytz, Eileen Chou, Joe Magee and Adam Galinsky, gives us new insights into these paradoxes of power. The paper consists of eight separate experiments. After randomly assigning subjects to either a high or low power condition – participants were asked to write about all the ways in which people have power over them, or they have power over other people – they were given a short loneliness survey. As expected, those primed to feel powerful also felt less lonely. The same correlation held when people were allowed to dictate the assignments and payouts of a subordinate. Being a boss, even briefly, helps protect us from feeling left out.*

Why is power a buffer against loneliness? The key mechanism involves the desire to connect with others, or what psychologists call the “need to belong.” In another online study, 607 subjects were assigned to be either the boss or a subordinate in an online game. The boss got to decide how $10 was divided; the subordinate was simply told the outcome.

Then, everyone was given two surveys: one about their “need to belong” and another about their current feelings of loneliness. Those in the “boss” condition were less lonely than their “subordinates,” largely because they felt less need to belong. Simply put, those in charge don’t feel a desire to fit in, which makes them less sensitive to being left out. Why cater to the group when you command it?

This research begins to explain the allure of power. While power might actually make us more isolated – Machiavelli urged the prince to reject the trap of friendship and loyalty – it seems to reduce our subjective feelings of loneliness. (That powerful prince won’t miss his former friends.) And since we are wired to abhor loneliness, perhaps we lust after power as a substitute for more genuine connection. Instead of companions we collect underlings. Being feared by others can compensate for a lack of love. 

The scientists also speculate on how these new findings might explain the large body of research linking the acquisition of power to reduced levels of empathy and compassion. Because power makes us less motivated to connect with others - it's rather comfortable being alone at the top - we might also become less interested in considering their feelings, or making them feel better.

There are, of course, the usual social science caveats. These are temporary interventions, done in the lab and with online subjects. The effects of power in real life, where people rise to the top over time, and where their authority has real consequences, might be different. Perhaps Machiavelli’s prince realized that he missed his friends.

After reading this paper, it’s hard not to see power as a risky mental state; climbing the ladder often sows the seeds of our downfall. (Lincoln said it best: “Nearly all men can stand adversity, but if you want to test a man’s character, give him power.”) The essential problem of power is that leaves us socially isolated even as it masks our isolation. We feel less lonely, so we don’t realize how disconnected we’ve become. Even worse, being in charge of others makes us less interested in understanding them. We shrug off their social norms; we ignore their complaints; we are free to listen to that selfish voice telling us to take what we need.

And so the leader becomes detached from those below. He has no idea how much they hate him.

*Michael Scott was a notable exception.

Waytz, Adam, et al. "Not so lonely at the top: The relationship between power and loneliness." Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes 130 (2015): 69-78.