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How Power Changes You

Does absolute power really corrupt absolutely?

Wendy Corniquet/Pixaby
Source: Wendy Corniquet/Pixaby

“Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.” This quotation from Lord Action may be the most famous phrase about how power changes people. But is it accurate? Does power always have a nefarious influence on people’s character?

Power is the ability to exert one’s will and resist the influence of other people. In their review of the research on power, Rachel Sturm and John Antonakis found that when people are in a position of relative power, it does change them. These alterations manifest themselves in what are often considered the three main areas of psychological functioning: thought, emotion, and behavior.

1. Thought

One of the ways power influences people is by affecting their thoughts and the way they process information. Research has shown that people in positions of relative power think in more abstract terms. They also process information in a simplified way, which can lead to more stereotyping and a heightened focus on central versus peripheral details of a situation. Power has also been shown to make people more strict in how they judge others and less likely to consider other people’s perspectives. Power also leads people to be more confident in their decisions and minimize the perceived impediments to their goals.

2. Emotion

Power also alters someone's emotional experience. People in positions of power enjoy more positive emotions and higher levels of optimism, and do so in potentially challenging situations, such as when leading discussions of controversial topics. They have also been shown to smile more, conceal sadness better than those low in power, and react less in response to stressful circumstances. People high in power have also been shown to feel less distress in the face of others’ suffering and reduce the extent to which they mirror the emotional responses of other people.

3. Behavior

Power also changes the way people behave. Those who possess power are more likely to begin a negotiation, touch other people, and take initiative when it is unclear whether such behavior is permitted. In general, power leads people to feel less constrained by social conventions and more likely to violate social norms. Overall, it seems that power tends to make people more comfortable in taking action that fosters their personal goals.

Does Power Corrupt?

Do the changes elicited by power suggest that Lord Acton was correct? Does power tend to corrupt?

The available evidence seems to suggest that Lord Acton was only partly right. As Sturm and Antonakis suggest “the experience of power changes individuals in ways that can be either positive or negative… by activating individuals’ underlying traits or attributes. That is, if individuals are morally inclined, power may actually facilitate ethical choices.” Other researchers have similarly suggested that “communally or collectively oriented individuals tend to respond to power in socially responsible, and not self-interested, ways.”

So, Lord Action was on the right track. Power does corrupt. However, it seems to be most likely to corrupt people who have an existing inclination towards corruption. For those with more socially-oriented proclivities, power seems to liberate more honorable aspects of their character.

The available research demonstrates that power does indeed change people. However, what power seems to do is not invariably draw out the malevolent parts of people’s personalities. Instead, power allows people to reveal their true colors.

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