Does Power Corrupt, or Reveal, Who You Are?

Lord Acton was an English Catholic historian, politician, and writer in the 1800’s. He said “Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.” Michelle Obama countered this with a statement in her speech at the 2012 Democratic National Convention in which she said “being president doesn’t change who you are, it reveals who you are.”

Have you been in a position of power? Perhaps you function in some role as a leader. You are the president of a service club, or you manage a group of workers at your job, or you are the church treasurer. Would you say that it changed who you are? Or did it reveal who you are?

Power has the capacity to direct or influence the behavior of others. Psychologists generally define power as control over others, by providing or withholding resources. The experience of power is often associated with promoting self-interest. It makes people more likely to act on their own desires. People who feel powerful are more likely to voice their opinions, talk more often, and interrupt others. They are quicker to make a decision with less information. Power allows us to ignore others’ concerns and pursue our own objectives. Therefore, it can become the basis of unethical behavior.

Melissa Williams, a psychologist at Emory University, has written about what leads power to corrupt or ennoble. Her research identified traits that can guide ethical or unethical leadership. Ethical leaders are found to have traits of agreeableness, honesty, cooperation and humility. They are supportive and served their followers rather than demanding to be served. Ethical leaders feel a need to do the morally right thing. One study showed that leaders with high moral standards became more generous. Unethical leaders tend to feel entitled, want to stand out from the crowd and they exhibit more abusive behaviors. Those with low moral standards become more selfish.

There is nothing wrong with seeking a position of power. The critical issue is how you intend to use that power. We can examine one’s past use of power as an indicator of how they will wield power in the future. If someone has a high moral standard, it is reasonable to assume that power will demonstrate their standards. If someone has a low moral standard, they are more likely to misuse their position of power.

Interestingly, it is demonstrated that power can rewire your brain. Brain stimulation experiments by Sukhvinder Obhi, neuroscientist, and colleagues, found that power impairs a neural process involved in empathy. They found, through transcranial magnetic stimulation, that people in power do worse than others in recognizing social cues and responding in kind. The longer a person exercises power, the less empathy they have.

UC Berkeley psychologist Dr. Dacher Keltner summarized his view of power in saying “Here is what power does to just about every human being. It’s going to make you not pay attention to people as well as you used to pay attention to them. You may find yourself swearing at a colleague or telling them that their work is (expletive). You will be a little less careful in the language you use. You will be a little less thoughtful about how things look from their perspective. So just practice a little gratitude. Listen empathetically. It shouldn’t be that difficult.”

So, does power corrupt, or reveal, who you are? In general, if you live by a high moral standard these traits will be revealed by the manner in which you wield power. If you live by a low moral standard, that will also be revealed. If you hold a position of power, watch that you don’t become corrupted.

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