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.

Tribes: I Know I Am, But What Are You?


This American Life had a great segment over the weekend about tribes and what they mean in modern day times:

Until almost 10,000 years ago, everyone literally lived in a tribe of a few hundred or a small band of a few dozen people. UCLA scientist Jared Diamond talks about how back then, you could go your whole life without ever encountering a stranger. He recently came out with a book called The World Until Yesterday.

Listen to the full episode

The science behind breaking up


If your Valentine’s Day was less than ideal, don’t worry — hopefully this comic inspired by UCSF’s Dr. Lewis’ “A General Theory of Love” can boost your spirits!

“Long before science existed, sharp-eyed men and women told each other stories about how people are, stories that have never lost their power to enchant and instruct. The purpose of using science to investigate human nature is not to replace those stories but to augment and deepen them. Robert Frost once wrote that too many poets delude themselves by thinking the mind is dangerous and must be left out. That principle is mirrored in the study of the brain, where too many experts, out of plain fear, avoid mentioning love.”

— from A General Theory of Love by Thomas Lewis, MD, Fari Amini, MD, and Richard Lannon, MD

Check out the full comic here