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Truth and Power

December 11, 2017
by Krissy Eliot

In a letter to an Anglican bishop in the late 19th century, English Catholic Baron John Dalberg-Acton would drop what would become one of the most popular aphorisms about the nature of man: “Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.” For a hundred some years post-Acton, the bulk of scientific research supported this ubiquitous idea, with countless studies revealing that when humans are handed power, they become more self-serving and ruthless.

“We rise in power and make a difference in the world due to what is best about human nature, but we fall from power due to what is worst,” wrote Dacher Keltner, psychology professor and co-director of the UC Berkeley Greater Good Science Center, in his book The Power Paradox. “The very experience of having power and privilege leads us to behave, in our worst moments, like impulsive, out-of-control sociopaths.”

Or does it? Despite the accepted wisdom, emerging studies out of Berkeley show that this common understanding of power isn’t so absolute after all.

“I think power can definitely corrupt, and I think that a lot of the research on power has set up circumstances where they’re going to find that,” said Berkeley psychology professor Serena Chen, director of the Self, Identity and Relationships Laboratory on campus. “But I think that any power researcher would agree that there are going to be moderating valuables, variables that flip the switch, and might actually lead power to do just the opposite.”

Several of Chen’s studies indicate that whether power corrupts or not depends entirely on the person attaining it. In one study, Chen and other researchers tested whether power always makes people more self-serving. To do this, they had “communally oriented” individuals—those used to associating power with responsibility—and “exchange-oriented” individuals—those accustomed to a tit-for-tat mentality—take part in multiple experiments testing how power affected the individuals’ behavior.

Ultimately, across the experiments, when participants were “primed with power,” for example sitting in a professor’s chair to complete an assignment, the communally oriented were more likely to respond in “socially responsible ways” that benefited the whole group, whereas exchangers were more likely to be selfish. For instance, exchangers who were exposed to power-related words before a partnered task were more likely than their communal peers to make selfish decisions.

In a study of power’s effects on people’s thoughts and behaviors, Chen discovered that people with power are better able to resist being influenced by others and by the environment.

“Power brings out your default tendencies. So if your default tendencies are self-serving, then yeah, you’ll be self-serving. But if your default tendency is to be really concerned about others’ welfare,” Chen says, “then being in a position of power should exacerbate those tendencies.”

In other words, power magnifies your natural traits and, according to Chen’s research, can even transform you into a more self-actualized, authentic person.

In a study of power’s effects on people’s thoughts and behaviors, Chen discovered that people with power are better able to resist being influenced by others and by the environment, because power affords them that freedom. So if you’re meeting your girlfriend’s family for the first time, you probably won’t let it all hang out and express just how hung over you really are. You want to make a good first impression, and so they have the power. But ten years later when you’re married and getting smashed on eggnog with her Uncle Ham, you’ll be more comfortable gettin’ real.

In one of the study’s experiments, 95 adult participants were asked to write about themselves on eHarmony (a dating website) and Facebook. Higher-power people showed a greater consistency in their descriptions of themselves on the two sites, but the less-powerful wrote descriptions that seemed tailored to the sites’ different audiences.

“A big truism in social psychology as a whole is that contextual cues and settings can have a big impact on our behaviors,” Chen explains. So power can lead us to be more self-actualized, honest, and authentic—which science has shown leads to less psychological distress, elevated mood, and a greater sense of well-being. Sounds peachy for the person in power—but it may not be so great for others, particularly if the powerful person is authentically self-serving.

“I think that there are benefits for the actor, the person being authentic, because there’s an enormous literature suggesting that being authentic, expressing the real you, has a ton of well-being benefits. But of course, if the real you that’s being expressed is corruptive or damaging, or aggressive towards other people,” Chen says, “It’s not really good for society and for others who are the target of this kind of self-expression.”

In the same vein, Chen notes another one of her studies showing how power can give people a thicker skin, making it much easier for them to endure social rejection and bounce back. In theory, this sounds good, Chen says, because rejection can be so mentally and physically disruptive. But an increased imperviousness to rejection might not always be ideal.

After all, “Nobody wants a power holder who doesn’t get it that people are not happy with them,” she says. “Someone who is so extreme and thinks, ‘I’m so loved, no need for change.’

“There’s a lot [of evidence] to suggest that we do conduct ourselves in the world with some level of self-interest, looking out for ourselves and people who matter to us, but that doesn’t mean necessarily that power has to corrupt all.”

Ultimately, Chen says, “whether power is good or bad depends on who you are.”

More research needs to be done on power and its relationship to revealing our authentic selves, but in the end, whether or not power turns you into a jerk is less in line with Baron Acton’s POV, and more in line with a saying attributed to Abraham Lincoln: “Nearly all men can stand adversity, but if you want to test a man’s character, give him power.” 

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