Whether power corrupts a person – or if a corrupt person is more apt to pursue a position of power – has long been a question amongst the scientific community.
Take, for example, the 1971 Stanford Prison Experiment, an inherently flawed study that was halted after six days following the abuse doled out by one group of students randomly assigned to serve as prison guards toward another group of their classmates.
Similarly, Lord Acton, a famed 19th-century English historian, and politician, stated, “Power tends to corrupt and absolute power corrupts absolutely.”
Perhaps, though, Acton’s outlook is too absolute. Rarely is the science of social relationships as black-and-white as this statement would have us believe. Simply put, it’s not so simple.
Are corrupt leaders born as such, or does society breed them to a certain pedigree? It is true that people with certain personality traits, such as psychopathy or narcissism, are more apt to seek positions of power. It is also true, on the other hand, that power can bring out such underlying personality traits.
“It is not just personality and not just power that corrupts people, but perhaps a combination of both,” wrote researcher Iris Kranefeld in a 2023 study in the journal Personality and Individual Differences.
What personality types are more likely to seek power and, once attained, does power change a person’s behavior? The research is divided.
Power influences people, but it doesn’t necessarily instigate corruption
Power does not corrupt everyone equally. As Parul Verma wrote for the American Philosophical Association, "Power amplifies and exposes cognitive and behavioral predispositions that already exist within you. It merely reveals your innate tendencies, but it does not corrupt."
American clinical psychologist Dr Ramani Durvsalu, a professor at California State University in Los Angeles, told IFLScience that while people may be influenced by power, there are other factors at play to determine whether it will corrupt them.
“Power does influence people – as would any social stimulus – but it doesn't always bring out the worst in people. There are protective traits, for example, such as agreeableness or conscientiousness, that would be a hedge against the corruptibility that power may bring,” Dr Durvsalu told IFLScience. “However, one may also argue that a person with these traits may also feel somewhat uncomfortable with too much power.”
Power is one’s general ability to influence others, whether through direct control or other means. Narcissism and psychopathy are ubiquitous traits observed among global leaders, from presidents to CEOs. Indeed, the number of people with narcissistic personality traits on corporate boards is nearly three times the general population.
[Note: both psychopathy and narcissism are professional diagnoses.]
Narcissistic leaders seek to benefit themselves and, by proxy, their constituents
Narcissism is a “mixed blessing” personality trait that is characterized by an inflated sense of self, feelings of superiority, entitlement, and a desire for admiration. Research has shown a high likelihood of narcissists emerging as leaders and the trait often goes hand-in-hand with political leaders, CEOs, and other high-status individuals.
Narcissistic people are more likely to “seek out power and leadership, and to engage in more problematic behavior whilst in these positions,” explained Dr Durvsalu.
That’s because narcissistic leaders aim to benefit themselves and, by proxy, benefit the organization or institution to which they belong.
But what about narcissism makes one more apt to seek a position of power? For one, those with narcissistic tendencies tend to be overconfident, which means they may be prone to errors because they think they are special and unique, entitled to more positive outcomes, and are more intelligent or attractive. A 2016 study that explored the connection between narcissism and overconfidence found that a narcissist in power leads to an “especially elevated overconfidence.”
On average, men tend to be more narcissistic than women, which could help to explain why there has never been a female US president and why the Harvard Business View reports that 95 percent of CEOs are men.
Research has shown that grandiose narcissists often rise to positions of power, even though there is little evidence between narcissism and better performance. Take, for example, a 2022 study that found US wars lasted longer under presidents with higher narcissistic tendencies. Of 19 presidents between 1897 and 2009, those with higher narcissistic scores spent an average of 613 days at war compared with lower scorers at 136 days. Additionally, the most narcissistic presidents were six times more likely to initiate an international dispute than a president with average levels of narcissism.
Psychopaths elicit personality traits often associated with power
Just as those with narcissistic personality traits tend to have a grandiose sense of self, people with psychopathic tendencies often exhibit personality traits associated with power, such as charisma, persuasiveness, and creativity, noted Simon Croom, a professor of supply chain management at the University of San Diego School of Business, in an article for Fortune.
“Our culture also glorifies and rewards successful leaders who may lie somewhere on the spectrum of psychopathy or who, if not actually psychopathic, nevertheless display traits that psychopathic individuals frequently have. The problem, of course, is that while psychopaths may have a lot of charisma and creativity, they may also lack, as already mentioned, socially important qualities such as empathy and morality,” Croom wrote.
According to the triarchic model of psychopathy, which is used to define the personality disorder, psychopathy consists of three facets: boldness, meanness, and disinhibition. Other traits include arrogance, self-absorption, callousness, exploitation, and impulsivity.
Together, these characteristics are associated with a desire for power and dominance, both of which may push a person to pursue a position of power.
At the heart of power and corruption lies the age-old adage: nature versus nurture
Certain people who have attained a level of power may experience a loss of empathy, lean toward self-interested behaviors, and normalize otherwise unethical behavior. But whether a person becomes corrupt, so to speak, depends on their individual character. Positive change through education and moral values may help a person avoid such corruption.
“Part of it involves certain things we can't really change, like our personalities, those agreeable humble empathic folks have built-in protections. In the absence of that then you need systems that keep power in check,” Dr Durvsalu explained.
Asking powerful people to self-regulate when they don’t have agreeable personality types is like keeping foxes in a henhouse, added Durvsalu.
How to not let power corrupt
Experts advise avoiding corruption through empathy, gratitude, and generosity
Dacher Keltner, a professor of psychology at the University of California, Berkeley, writes in the Harvard Business Review that developing greater self-awareness and practicing graciousness are two ways to not let power corrupt. Keltner adds that the below actions are starting points in maintaining a sense of self when moving towards positions of power.
To practice empathy:
- Ask a great question or two in every interaction, and paraphrase important points that others make.
- Listen with gusto. Orient your body and eyes toward the person speaking and convey interest and engagement vocally.
- When someone comes to you with a problem, signal concern with phrases such as “I’m sorry” and “That’s really tough.” Avoid rushing to judgment and advice.
- Before meetings, take a moment to think about the person you’ll be with and what is happening in his or her life.
To practice gratitude:
- Make thoughtful thank-yous a part of how you communicate with others.
- Send colleagues specific and timely e-mails or notes of appreciation for jobs done well.
- Publicly acknowledge the value that each person contributes to your team, including the support staff.
- Use the right kind of touch—pats on the back, fist bumps, or high fives—to celebrate successes.
To practice generosity:
- Seek opportunities to spend a little one-on-one time with the people you lead.
- Delegate some important and high-profile responsibilities.
- Give praise generously.
- Share the limelight. Give credit to all who contribute to the success of your team and your organization.
The content of this article is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Always seek the advice of qualified health providers with questions you may have regarding medical conditions.