One way power corrupts is by reducing social constraints

Brian Resnick warns that Trump would be a terrible president not because the enormous power of the presidency would corrupt him, but because it would merely give him more freedom to reveal his true personality.  As if we haven’t seen enough of that already.  Resnic confusingly claims that “power doesn’t corrupt,” and then spends most of his article showing how power does indeed corrupt.  He begins by saying that power doesn’t corrupt; it just removes social constraints on our actions:

The more powerful we are, the more free we are to act on our base desires…. When we’re not in a position of power, we’re constrained by social norms and expectations. We make decisions that don’t rock the boat, we’re maybe more polite, we’re less confident in our ideas. “Power removes some of that,” Kraus tells me. When those barriers are removed, the “true self” — meaning a person’s personality, the gut way they react to the world — is revealed…

As Michael Kraus… wrote recently at Quartz, power is only likely to magnify the negative characteristics in a man like Trump. But for an interesting reason: It’s not that power is, by itself, corrupting. It’s that “power simply brings our true nature out into the open,” Kraus writes….  that when people feel powerful, they’ll behave more consistently: whether they’re among relatives or friends, whether they’re posting to Facebook or to a dating website. The context of the situation doesn’t get in the way of the self….

So power can magnify the personality by removing social constraints, but social constraints generally evolve to help the average person be less corrupt, not more.  Unless an individual is so moral as to be much less corrupt than the social constraints produced by her community, then removing social constraints is just going to increase corruption. At best, this line of research is evidence that some people are very intrinsically altruistic and these people can handle power better than most.  This is pretty flimsy support for the idea that power doesn’t tend to corrupt.  Then Resnick spends most of the rest of the article writing about research showing that power does indeed corrupt:

Keltner writes about many studies that show the subtly sinister influence of power.

  • More powerful people are less empathetic, and are literally less able to read emotion in the eyes of others.
  • More powerful people are less likely to take the perspective of others. In one very simple but small experiment — only 57 subjects — participants were asked to draw the letter E on their foreheads. The participants who felt more powerful were less likely to draw the letter so that others could read it correctly. Here’s what I mean:
 Psychological Science
  • Powerful people are more self-serving. In an experiment, Keltner brought groups of three participants into the lab and had them play a game where one was given the role of the leader. He then brought out five cookies as a snack. “And indeed, the high-power participants were nearly twice as likely to grab a second cookie, with their peers looking on,” Keltner writes.

Powerful people, as measured by job status, are more likely to report that they’ve had an affair (which suggests that they either felt freer to engage in the action or felt less shame in admitting it). In other surveys, “people feeling powerful were more likely to say it’s okay to not pay taxes, and that there’s nothing wrong with over reporting travel expenses or speeding on highways,” Keltner writes.

The powerful are also more prone to hypocrisy. One 2010 paper out of Northwestern and Tilburg universities found evidence that while powerful-feeling people judge others more harshly for breaking rules, they cut themselves some slack when they bend the rules. “People with power take what they want not only because they can do so without punishment, but also because they intuitively feel they are entitled to do so,” the paper concluded.

Rich people drive less considerately and cheat more in games.  Paul Piff and colleagues wrote a paper called, “higher social class predicts increased unethical behavior.”  Lisa Miller explained how it shows that power corrupts:

quizzes, online games, questionnaires, in-lab manipulations, and field studies [showed] that living high on the socioeconomic ladder can, colloquially speaking, dehumanize people. It can make them less ethical, more selfish, more insular, and less compassionate than other people. It can make them more likely, as Piff demonstrated in one of his experiments, to take candy from a bowl of sweets designated for children. “While having money doesn’t necessarily make anybody anything,” Piff says, “the rich are way more likely to prioritize their own self-interests above the interests of other people. It makes them more likely to exhibit characteristics that we would stereotypically associate with, say, assholes.”

Wealth is economic power and perhaps Jesus understood the social science research when he told the rich man to give everything to the poor in order to gain riches in heaven in Matthew 19 (and Luke 18).  Then Jesus said:

Again I tell you, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God.”

Of the other extreme, there is no point in worshipping poverty for its own sake.  Mother Teresa’s organizations have been accused of doing just that and they refuse to be accountable for the vast donations that they take in.  This might be a case where reducing their financial secrecy might provide a useful social constraint.  Secrecy and knowledge are also forms of power that economists often call ‘asymmetric information’.


Posted in Development, Public Finance

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