A few years ago, I published a paper in the journal Science showing that even small children can predict the results of parliamentary elections with two candidates merely by looking at their photographs. As you might imagine, the result caused quite a stir, and it led to an interesting discussion with a journalist.
After a debate over the presidential elections in the US, a journalist and I began to discuss the case of former Italian prime minister Silvio Berlusconi. The journalist wanted me to explain why Berlusconi was so power-hungry; what factors might explain his character and his sexual escapades?
I did not want to answer. I don’t like to respond on particular cases because it’s hard to know if a single case is indicative of a causal relationship. However, after persistent questioning, I blurted out a response: “I don’t know. Maybe it is because of his testosterone?”
But an answer given out of frustration and in the heat of the moment became prophetic. We know that the hormone testosterone indicates reduced empathy and increased antisocial behavior, as well as controlling sexual behaviour. So when planning a study on leader corruption with my colleagues, I thought it might be interesting to measure testosterone too.
What we wanted to study was the question of whether power really corrupts. We recently published our findings in the Leadership Quarterly.
Does power corrupt?
Answering this question using observational data is not easy. It is possible that power corrupts, but it is also possible that some individuals have a natural inclination to seek power because they are corrupt at heart. We were therefore interested to see if stable traits or dispositions that we could measure, such as personality (for example, honesty) or physiological factors (such as testosterone levels), mattered for corruption.
To know whether power does corrupt we had to exogenously manipulate power; we gave power to a random group of participants and observed how they behaved. By random assignment, we ensured we had roughly equal numbers of similar individuals (honest, smart, corrupt, men, women, and so on) in our experimental and control groups. If we found differences in levels of corruption, the explanation could not therefore be that the groups comprised different types of people at the outset.
We set up two lab experiments. Participants played what is called a dictator game. The dictator, referred to as the “leader” in the experiment, could decide how to apportion a sum of money between himself or herself, and his or her team. They had to make choices between serving the greater good – doing what’s right for public welfare by increasing the team’s payout – or serving oneself, thereby increasing the leader’s payout but destroying public welfare.
We also manipulated the number of followers for each leader: the leaders either had one follower (low-power leaders), or three (high-power leaders). Low-power leaders had few choices with respect to abusing their power and high-power leaders were given more options. We then allowed the leaders to take decisions about payouts.
What did we find?
In the first experiment, results showed that high-power leaders took antisocial decisions at a significantly higher rate than low-power leaders.
The second experiment was more complex: we added a time component and monitored participants’ individual differences as predictors of their behaviour. Prior to becoming leaders or followers, we asked participants to vote on what a responsible leader should do with respect to payouts. Most endorsed the pro-social option; just 3.33% said that leaders should take antisocial decisions.
Yet, when they became leaders, participants succumbed to the corruptive effects of power. Interestingly, honest individuals were initially shielded from taking antisocial decisions – but, with time, even they slid down the slippery, corrupting slope of power. Even more interesting was our observation that those who had high levels of testosterone were most corrupt when they had high power.
Our findings have important implications for the design of institutions. Leaders prefer to have decision-making autonomy and lots of discretion. Yet we know from our study, and others too, that power can go to leaders’ heads.
Perhaps our findings do not explain everything about dominant high-profile individuals such as Robert Mugabe, Silvio Berlusconi, or Dominique Strauss-Kahn, or their contemporaries in the corporate world. But they do suggest that institutions should limit how much their leaders are allowed to sip from the seductive chalice of power.
John Antonakis is professor of organisation behavior at HEC Lausanne, the business school at the University of Lausanne
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Absolute Power Does Not Corrupt Absolutely
A man named Lord Actor once said, "Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely. Great men are almost always bad men." This means that giving a person some power can turn them into a bad person. However, giving someone absolute power will always corrupt some and that these people are always bad. Knowing what the quote means the question remains, is the quote true? The answer is no. "Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely. Great men are almost always bad men." This is because nothing is always anything, a person’s bad deeds can be outdone by good deeds, and corruption is a matter of opinion.
Nothing in the world we live in is always anything. Even though there is what we call "facts," even those facts are sometimes disproven with other facts showing the falsity of that fact. This same idea can be applied to the idea that a person given absolute power will always be corrupted. Just as it does not always rain when it is supposed to, an absolute monarch is not always bad. If there is even one example that shows otherwise, you might come to the conclusion that the statement is false, and that example is Maria Theresa. When Maria Theresa came into power she deemed herself an "absolute monarch" in order to have more control over her people, but she used this absolute power to create many successful reforms such as making the feudal system fairer to the serfs and giving them rights. One of those rights was limiting the amount of time they could work per day. Maria thought this would improve productivity and living standards. Reforms such as these made her country prosperous during her rule. Phillip II, Louis XIV, and Fredrick II were all the same way, they may have shown some sign of corruption that may have sown badness, but all of them made contributions to their countries. Proving nothing is always anything.
Just as there are usually two sides to every story and two sides of a person, there are even sometimes two sides to someone’s actions. There is no disproving that there are bad leaders in existence, but you could say that even these rulers offered something that might outweigh their bad deeds. An example of this would be Fredrick I whom used his father’s methods of warfare as a means of gaining power. Of course since Fredrick II started wars, there are casualties of war which would make some modern...
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