Does Power Corrupt? Science Says: Yes

Lord Acton, in an 1887 letter to Bishop Mandell Creighton, famously stated that: “power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.”  It turns out that Acton’s observation was truer than he could possibly have known at the time.

Dr. Ian Robertson has discovered that there is a biological basis to the addiction of power.  It turns out that in both men and women, the exercise of power increases both the levels of testosterone and 3-androstanediol (a testosterone by-product).*  This chemical surge, in turn, increases dopamine levels—a short-term reward for the brain.  Unfortunately, the addiction to power can simulate the physical addiction to cocaine—producing short-term euphoria but also leading to arrogance, impatience, egocentricity and lack of empathy.  Most sentient adults have observed such sub-optimal behavior in organizational leaders of all kinds—with negative effects everywhere.

Dr. Robertson, a professor of psychology at the University of Dublin, is publishing a book, The Winner Effect: How Power Affects Your Brain, on June 7, 2012 (Bloomsbury)**.   His analysis of baboon hierarchies provided key insights into the effects of dominant behavior in groups, and the effect on group dynamics.  Baboons low in the hierarchy have low levels of dopamine.  Once “promoted”, however, dopamine levels rise—making them more aggressive.

The jolt of dopamine does have an upside—apparently, it increases the activity of the frontal lobes, making people smarter for a while.  But the net effects on relationships and human happiness must be weighed in the balance.

Dr. Robertson notes in the article:

“Democracy, the separation of judicial powers and the free press all evolved for essentially one purpose – to reduce the chance of leaders becoming power addicts.”

Organizations would be well-advised to enable checks and balances on the raw exercise of individual power.  Lord Acton thought that power corrupts.  Science backs him up.



Photo by D Gordon E Robinson

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