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Power Corrupts, Science Proves It

Power Corrupts, Science Proves It

By Laura Secorun Palet



Before we can tackle corruption, we should understand why it happens.

By Laura Secorun Palet

“Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely,” Lord Acton said in the 19th century. More than a hundred years later, the principle seems to stand. From finance to politics, the higher echelons of society are riddled with men and women who make choices that benefit themselves instead of the public. 

Still, the why of it was hard to explain. Does having power truly make people corrupt, or are corrupt individuals simply more drawn to positions of power? It turns out Lord Acton was right all along. A study by the Swiss University of Lausanne, recently published in The Leadership Quarterly, has managed to detangle both factors and found that power does skew the moral compass of even the most honest people. And guess what? Testosterone matters.

The study’s not about theory but practice, says Dan Ariely, a behavioral economist and author of The Honest Truth About Dishonesty. Being corrupt, he says, “is often a socially infectious behavior.”

Unsurprisingly, the study showed that those who scored higher on the honesty test did behave more responsibly at first. But here’s the twist: Even the most trustworthy of participants eventually succumbed to power, and most ended up using access for personal gain. The team performed two anonymous experiments, both variations of the famous “dictator game” in which a leader is put in charge of distributing an imaginary sum of money. The more they kept for themselves, the less others would get. Except this time, to ensure that results were representative, the money was real. 

More testosterone led to more anti-social behavior, which suggests women are less likely to become corrupt than men.

Each leader had a clear choice: to make pro-social or anti-social decisions. The first increased payouts to the entire group, while the latter resulted in reduced overall payouts to the group but increased the leader’s individual earnings. The results were clear. The more power leaders had — in terms of number of followers and choices — the more likely they were to make anti-social choices and look after only their personal benefit.

Leaders knew what they were doing. The study found that initially all leaders, regardless of levels of honesty, said they believed it right to act for the greater good — only 3 percent believed the leader should benefit more than anyone else. The social norm was clear. Yet once the leaders tasted power, few remained uncorrupted. And the longer the exposure, the greater the effect. Low-power leaders did not become significantly more corrupt over time, but high-power leaders did. Only 19 percent of high-power leaders stuck to their initial response about what a responsible leader should do. 

The study also measured the levels of testosterone of leaders — with a saliva test — to see if an increase made them less sensitive to the suffering of others. The answer was a resounding yes. More testosterone led to more anti-social behavior, which suggests women are less likely to become corrupt than men. So it turns out that even if a leader is shown to be honest and trustworthy before taking office, or becoming a CEO, it might not last. 

What to do? We need governance mechanisms and strong institutions to check against big leaders — duh — says John Antonakis, professor of organizational behavior at the University of Lausanne and co-author of the study. So it’s on us to “limit how much leaders can drink from the seductive chalice of power.” 

Easier said than done when the contents are so intoxicating.

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