Does Power Corrupt? Absolutely Not

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Power breeds competence, not corruption, according to a new study in the May issue of Psychological Science. The study, a collaboration between U.S. and Dutch researchers, finds that if people feel powerful in their roles, they may be less likely to make on-the-job errors — like administering the wrong medication to a patient. Contrary to conventional wisdom, the study suggests that people at the bottom of the workplace totem pole don't end up there for lack of ability, but rather that being low and powerless in a hierarchy leads to more mistakes. It's a finding that surprised even the study's authors. "I'll be totally honest. When we started this research," says Adam Galinsky, a co-author and a social psychology professor at the Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University, "we first had the hypothesis that maybe power might impair [cognitive] functioning."

"This research has a lot of direct implications for such things as whether power corrupts," says Galinsky, who collaborated with researchers from VU University Amsterdam and Radboud University Nijmegan.

Here's how the study worked: volunteers, Dutch university students, were randomly assigned to one of three experimental groups. Researchers "primed" each group at the outset — using a variety of psychological devices — to feel powerful, powerless or neutral. In one priming exercise, students were asked to form sentences using specific groups of words. The powerful group got words that implied high power, like "authority" or "dominate." The powerless group were given words such as "subordinate" and "obey." The control group got power-neutral words. After completing the word tasks, participants were tested for what Galinsky refers to as "executive function" — the ability to pay attention to relevant information while ignoring irrelevant information, and completing tasks based on the relevant information.

Researchers employed several different tests of executive function, the best-known among them being the Stroop test, a measure of cognitive attention developed in the 1930s: participants are shown color words, such as "red," "blue" or "yellow," printed in colors that are different from the color that the word actually names. So, the word "blue" might be written in green lettering, "red" would appear in blue, and so forth. The participant's goal is to name the color of the font he or she sees — an exercise of mental effort, called "directed attention," that requires people to override the immediate and automatic urge to simply read the word.

Galinsky expected that the empowered participants would be distracted by their own high-powered perch and would behave more impulsively, leading to more errors in recognizing the color of the font. Rather, he found the opposite was true. The students who were primed to feel devoid of power actually performed significantly worse than the powerful group — perhaps because the former group felt, as the study concludes, "guided by situational constraints... rather than by their own goals and values." In other words, low-power participants did not, in a way, feel in control of their own ability to complete tasks, feeling instead that they were "the means for other people's goals."

Despite the researchers' expectations, it's not entirely surprising that feeling powerless or unimportant might lead a person to take less care in his work. After all, if your efforts don't matter, why bother? Galinsky and his colleagues conducted four separate experiments with 422 volunteers, using different priming techniques and cognitive tests, and each time they got similar results. Powerful-feeling people performed better than the powerless. Galinsky says the study's conclusions could have a profound impact on social-order ideology and business. "People say the United States is a meritocracy," says Galinsky. "But let's not be too quick to say that the hierarchy that exists today is a perfect demonstration of a meritocracy — that everyone is completely ordered by their abilities — because rank in a hierarchy fundamentally alters people's basic cognitive function." The findings further support the idea, for example, that disadvantaged socioeconomic groups remain entrenched in poverty because their position puts them at a psychological disadvantage, not because they lack the ability or intelligence to succeed. In the study's discussion, the authors suggest that the powerless in society are directed "toward a destiny of dispossession."

Galinsky notes that past studies have arrived at similar conclusions about perception and performance. A 1999 experiment by researchers at Princeton University and the University of Arizona, for example, looked at the way awareness of racial stereotypes impacted athletic ability. That study required a group of university students — half of them black, and the other half white — to play 10 holes of mini-golf. (None of the participants were particularly good golfers.) Researchers found that when students were told that the golf challenge was a test of "natural athletic ability," black students performed better than whites. When told it was test of "sports intelligence," white students performed better than black students. At issue, the researchers theorized, was the pressure of negative racial stereotypes — that black athletes lack sports intelligence, for example, or that white athletes lack natural ability. "Concern over confirming the stereotype," the authors wrote, "would cause each group's athletic performance to suffer." Indeed, when students thought they were being judged based on a stereotype that favored their racial group, performance improved.

"The biggest and most significant implication [of the power study] is for organizations," says Galinsky. "If you could increase an employee's sense of power, it should improve their executive function, which would decrease incidence of catastrophic errors." If that reasoning holds up in the real-world workplace, simple acts of empowerment, such as encouraging employees to make suggestions to company management, could reduce unnecessary mistakes. And that could translate to fewer medication errors in hospitals, fewer airline accidents or even a lower risk of a disaster at a nuclear power plant. They seem like powerful reasons to embrace a theory.