How Power Makes People Selfish

“Power tends to corrupt; absolute power corrupts absolutely,” said the British historian Lord Acton. Unfortunately, this is not entirely a myth.

A great deal of research—especially from social psychology—lends support to Acton’s claim: Power leads people to act in impulsive fashion, both good and bad, and to fail to understand other people’s feelings and desires.

It is commonly thought that you must be misleading, forceful, and even conniving, to hold a position of power. New research reveals that instead, the most successful leaders are empathetic and receptive to the needs of others. Social intelligence is one of the highest ranking qualities a person in power should have. The Machiavellian type of power loses out much more often.

The strategy and manipulation that are core to the Machiavellian power structure, are not likely to help in obtaining and holding onto power. A successful leader is one who works to advance the goals of others around him/her, and is much more aware of group dynamics. Even in the case of primates, it was discovered that chimpanzees are much less reliant on strength and fighting to establish power. Instead, things like making sure everyone has enough food, working to resolve conflicts, and enforce normative group guidelines, were much more likely to make one chimp more powerful than another.

The irony is that once most people become powerful, they often stop exhibiting the qualities that got them there in the first place. Dacher Keltner, the UC Berkeley psychologist featured in the video above, says “When you give people power, they basically start acting like fools. They flirt inappropriately, tease in a hostile fashion, and become totally impulsive.” They actually begin to exhibit behavior similar to neurology patients with brain damage, which prevents them from relating to others.

This is because they are less able to sympathize with the emotions of their subordinates. They stop making eye contact with those in a less powerful position, and tend to rely on stereotypes when judging others in the workplace. While it takes a lot of empathy and social intelligence in the process of gaining power, it is a very easy thing to lose once the power is obtained.