Power Corrupts, According to Several Studies

There are several investigations that have led to the conclusion that power corrupts. It's most evident in those who've been in power for a long time with little opposition or limits on their control.
Power Corrupts, According to Several Studies

Last update: 30 August, 2021

Many people in power possess questionable ethics. However, science now claims that power both hurts and corrupts. Furthermore, it doesn’t matter what kind of power it is. In fact, in all cases, it causes negative impacts on those who hold it.

The politician and thinker Lord Acton stated, “power tends to corrupt and absolute power corrupts absolutely.” This is precisely why, in real democracies, a system of checks and balances is established that prevents, or tries to prevent, abuse and fraud.

However, all too often the system doesn’t serve this purpose. Money disappears, measures are implemented that benefit only those affiliated with certain political parties, and agreements are made which enable some officials and businessmen to fill their pockets to the detriment of society. In fact, deep down, many of us know that power corrupts. However, why is this?

The attempt to combine wisdom and power has only rarely been successful and then only for a short while.”

-Albert Einstein-

Businessman with arms crossed

Power corrupts

Dr. Dacher Keltner, a professor of psychology at the University of Berkeley, conducted several experiments in which he established that power corrupts and is damaging. According to his findings, those who hold management positions, over time, become more impulsive. Furthermore, they lose the ability to perceive risk and put themselves in the shoes of others.

Two more researchers, Carl Galang and Sukhvinder Obhi of McMaster University in Ontario, Canada, reached similar conclusions in their research. In their opinion, the powerful have a diminished ability to understand the circumstances of others. Indeed, they behave in such a way that other people simply don’t matter to them.

Obviously, this proves to be an obstacle to empathy. That’s because they systematically put their interests above those of others.

Hubris syndrome

Hubris syndrome is a condition often seen in figures of power. People with this disorder lose touch with reality and take excessive pride in their actions. In addition, they show less empathy towards others and take arrogant actions without thinking. The condition is most visible in those who’ve held powerful positions for a long time.

According to the English neurologist, Lord David Owen, and professor at the School of Psychiatry and Behavioral Science at Duke University, Jonathan Davidson, such a syndrome or effect is defined as: “a disorder caused by the exercise of power, especially power associated with great success, and exercised for years without severe limits to its exercise ”.

One of the typical manifestations of this disorder is contempt for others. In fact, those afflicted with the condition are self-assured and complacent in their relationships with other people. Furthermore, they often exhibit attitudes of recklessness and incompetence alongside total cynicism.

In today’s world, a very marked component of exhibitionism is added to the above. Power figures feel that they must build an image of themselves similar to that of a celebrity. They invest a lot of time, energy, and money in this. Nevertheless, far from assisting them in carrying out their work, it only increases their narcissism and egotism.

Boss angry with employees, showing that power corrupts.

Is it possible to escape this?

Does power generate this effect in all cases? Is the premise that power corrupts always true? As a matter of fact, data indicates that, in all cases, with the increase of power, comes the impossibility of being aware, understanding, and attending to the needs of others.

It’s extremely difficult for a person in power, especially for a long time, to escape these effects. However, there are means to prevent the disorder from gaining ground. The first of these concerns effective controls on power. These controls must be scrupulously observed. 

Such controls act as a kind of “grounding” for the powerful. In fact, if their power is limited and controlled, they tend to be less self-absorbed and their ego also reduces.

Discretion, limiting public exposure, and handling communication in a more serious way would also be advisable. Furthermore, being aware of the opinions of citizens, as well as being fully informed about their living conditions (through news, letters, documentaries, etc.), helps to preserve empathy in the powerful.

Power always has the potential to corrupt. Therefore, whoever holds it should be aware of this risk.

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  • Corres-Medrano, I., & Santamaria-Goicuria, I. (2020). Miedos en una sociedad enferma. Revista Internacional de Educación para la Justicia Social, 9(3e).