You've Changed, Man


Writing in The Wall Street Journal, Jonah Lehrer explores the psychological literature on power. Contrary to popular stereotype, Lehrer writes, the best way to accumulate authority isn't through Machiavellian backstabbing; it's by being considerate and friendly. Or so say studies of groups ranging from college sororities to troops of chimpanzees. But once you've accumulated power, your behavior often changes:

"It's an incredibly consistent effect," [psychologist Dacher] Keltner says. "When you give people power, they basically start acting like fools. They flirt inappropriately, tease in a hostile fashion, and become totally impulsive." Mr. Keltner compares the feeling of power to brain damage, noting that people with lots of authority tend to behave like neurological patients with a damaged orbito-frontal lobe, a brain area that's crucial for empathy and decision-making. Even the most virtuous people can be undone by the corner office.

Why does power lead people to flirt with interns and solicit bribes and fudge financial documents? According to psychologists, one of the main problems with authority is that it makes us less sympathetic to the concerns and emotions of others. For instance, several studies have found that people in positions of authority are more likely to rely on stereotypes and generalizations when judging other people. They also spend much less time making eye contact, at least when a person without power is talking.

The scholars cited in the piece are most persuasive when they observe actual social hierarchies in action. They are least persuasive when they draw sweeping conclusions from dubious experiments. The article's most ridiculous moment comes when it describes a study whose subjects were asked "to either describe an experience in which they had lots of power or a time when they felt utterly powerless. Then the psychologists asked the subjects to draw the letter E on their foreheads. Those primed with feelings of power were much more likely to draw the letter backwards, at least when seen by another person. [Adam] Galinsky argues that this effect is triggered by the myopia of power, which makes it much harder to imagine the world from the perspective of someone else." That seems about as believable as palmistry.

Of the studies Lehrer describes, I found this one most intriguing:

Deborah Gruenfeld, a psychologist at the Stanford Business School, [analyzed] more than 1,000 decisions handed down by the United States Supreme Court between 1953 and 1993. She found that, as justices gained power on the court, or became part of a majority coalition, their written opinions tended to become less complex and nuanced. They considered fewer perspectives and possible outcomes. Of course, the opinions written from the majority position are what actually become the law of the land.

I can't really judge this study without knowing how Gruenfeld measured complexity and nuance, but she may well be on to something. Though it's possible that she's actually stumbled on a different corruption of power: Perhaps as the justices' status grows, they're more prone to making their subordinates do their work.