Power corrupts what else corrupts

Power corrupts the honest too

Power also corrupts the honest - at least in terms of anonymity. This is the result of an experiment by Swiss researchers about which they report in the specialist journal "The Leadership Quarterly". The researchers conclude that only strong, controlled institutions protect against corruption.

John Antonakis from the Department of Organizational Behavior at the University of Lausanne and his colleagues wanted to know whether the saying of the British Baron Acton (1834-1902) from over 100 years ago: "Power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely" is true. The alternative would be that corrupt people are more likely to be attracted to positions of power.

Institutions usually act according to the second alternative: They typically look for people with desired character traits such as honesty and trustworthiness for management positions.

Power corrupts

Antonakis' team carried out an experiment in which ordinary people were allowed to play dictatorships. Almost 500 participants were randomly assigned either as leaders or supporters, and the leaders were allowed to split an amount of money between themselves and their supporters.

In doing so, they could anonymously either make a choice that was favorable to everyone, in which the bottom line was more money for everyone (the researchers added the difference), or an anti-social choice in which the leader got more, but the followers got less and all together also had less in the end.

"The results were clear: power corrupts," Antonakis said in a college podcast. The more supporters a "dictator" had - and thus power - and the more often he was allowed to make these decisions, the more he kept to himself - to the detriment of the general public.

Good leader, bad leader

In a second study, the researchers wanted to know whether personality traits or testosterone levels influence corruptibility. The researchers collected these from 240 test subjects a few weeks before the experiment. They also asked the participants how a good leader should behave.

Although 80 percent said that a good leader shouldn't act antisocially, most of them did just that in the game. And the more power - that is, the more followers - they got in later rounds of the game, the greater the proportion of corrupt ones became. Only one in five managed to remain honest.

It was also shown that high testosterone levels increased the corrupting effect of power. After all, people with high honesty scores were less likely to be anti-social on the first few repetitions. But as the game progressed, they too were corrupted by the Force and decided more often for their own benefit and to the detriment of all.

The researchers conclude from their study that no one is protected from the corrupting influence of power - at least in the anonymity of this game. "Strong and well-controlled institutions are key to keeping leaders in check," they conclude. (APA, October 2, 2014)