Does power really corrupt?

Culture can bring out collaboration or authoritarianism, sociability or greed in the people who wield influence and power

Corporate woman leading a group
Environmental cues play an important part in how powerful people behave and make decisions

Most people are unanimous in their belief that power corrupts. That once a person becomes powerful there is a change in his disposition. But a recent research by University College London psychologist Ana Guinote, who conducted the study with Mario Weick of the University of Kent and London doctoral student Alice Cai found that "environment crucially triggers dispositional or counter-dispositional behavior in powerful people,” Guinote informs. The findings appear in Psychological Science, a journal of the Association for Psychological Science.

Through a series of three experiments in which participants were given power roles—as a manager or employee, a consequential or trivial adviser on university policy, it was found that the behaviour of a person in power depends on environmental cues as well.

“Power-holders have to make quick decisions and respond to opportunities, so they often deploy automatic cognitive processes,” explained Guinote. They express their characters more strongly, but are also susceptible to manipulations of environmental cues—much more than less-powerful people, who act deliberatively and have less extreme but more consistent preferences.

The implications? “Organizational culture and social norms have an incredible power to influence power-holders,” Guinote said.  “It’s enough to have a culture around them or tasks to do that call for desirable behaviors.” Culture can bring out collaboration or authoritarianism, sociability or greed in the people who wield influence and power.

Association for Psychological Science

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