The Frontal Cortex

Power is Corrupting

Does power corrupt? And is absolute power absolutely corrupting? Here’s some suggestive evidence:

Researchers led by the psychologist Dacher Keltner took groups of three ordinary volunteers and randomly put one of them in charge. Each trio had a half-hour to work through a boring social survey. Then a researcher came in and left a plateful of precisely five cookies. Care to guess which volunteer typically grabbed an extra cookie? The volunteer who had randomly been assigned the power role was also more likely to eat it with his mouth open, spew crumbs on partners and get cookie detritus on his face and on the table.

Why does feeling a sense of power change our behavior? Part of the problem is that power is isolating. Our sense of fairness is innate, but it’s also fragile. Kevin McCabe, a neuroeconomist at George Mason University, plays a variant of the ultimatum game, that simple economic task where one person (the proposer) is given ten dollars and told to share it with another person (the responder). The proposer can divide the money however they like, but if the responder rejects the offer then both players end up with nothing.

McCabe’s variation is called “the dictator game.” Unlike the ultimatum game, in which the responder can decide whether or not to accept the monetary offer, in the dictator game the proposer simply dictates how much the responder receives. Contrary to the predictions of economists, these petit tyrants are still rather generous, and give away about one-third of the total amount of money. (This isn’t particularly rational or selfish.) Even when people have absolute power, they remain constrained by their moral instincts.

However, it only takes one minor alteration for this benevolence to disappear. When the dictator cannot see the responder – they are isolated – the dictator begins acting with the kind of unfettered greed expected by economists. Instead of giving away a significant share of the profits, they start offering mere pennies, and pocketing the rest. According to McCabe, this experiment reveals how economic exchange breaks down once people become socially isolated. When that happens, the rational Machiavelli inside us takes over, and our sense of fairness is squashed by our sense of selfishness. It is the loneliness of absolute power that makes it absolutely corrupting.

This experiment seems to support the anecdotal evidence of Paul Feldman, the bagel salesman made famous by Freakonomics. Feldman’s business model was simple. He would wake up early in the morning, fill his car with bagels and packets of cream cheese, and start his deliveries to the office parks of suburban Washington. He would leave a basket of a few dozen bagels and a wooden cash box in the snack room. His bagel profits depended entirely on the honesty of his customers.

Feldman kept meticulous notes about the payment rates of his various bagel customers. One of the more disturbing trends he detected was an inverse correlation between honesty and power. When he delivered bagels to office floors filled with executives – their underlings were on the lower floors – he noticed that climbing the corporate ladder seemed to make people more likely to steal. This might seem counter-intuitive, since CEO’s and vice-presidents can certainly afford a $1 bagel. But as Kevin McCabe demonstrated with his version of the dictator game, when powerful people are isolated they lose track of their moral compass. Fairness is subverted by greed. Corporate executives stop thinking about others, and feel entitled to a free breakfast.

Needless to say, these experiments have all sorts of implications. I’d begin by making sure that corporate executives aren’t isolated on the upper floors. The executives of Circuit City, for example, should have to spend some more time hanging out with their workers. Do you think power is corrupting? If so, then what safeguards should we put in place to make sure that our leaders don’t turn into greedy dictators?


  1. #1 mike
    April 4, 2007

    This makes me think of Bush. Has there been any more isolated president? the man likes to brag about his power (im the decider), but then only does town halls with carefully screened supporters…

  2. #2 Roy
    April 4, 2007

    Once the executive types get in, they will change all the rules to favor people like themselves and cheat everybody else, and they will drive out people unlike themselves and hire only their own kind.

    When the owners are a step removed from the executives — as in stockholders in a corporation — they become only interested in themselves, which allows and encourages executives to further skew the system.

    I think the only solution is to never make the mistake in the first place. If you own a business, once you leave the floor, you will never come back. As the business grows, your office becomes more distant, and so on and so on. There are no brakes to a runaway success.

  3. #3 David Holmes
    April 4, 2007

    I too thought of Bush. Glad to see I wasn’t alone;)

  4. #4 Alan
    April 4, 2007

    “But as Kevin McCabe demonstrated with his version of the dictator game, when powerful people are isolated they lose track of their moral compass. Fairness is subverted by greed. Corporate executives stop thinking about others, and feel entitled to a free breakfast.”

    Saying that fairness is subverted by greed is one way of putting the situation. Without phrasing the situation in moral terms, might one say that person inclination toward equity diminishes in inverse proportion to one’s power and isolation? But isn’t isolation here the key? Here’s what I mean. Suppose you have two varieties of bill collectors, those who live in the same community as the debtors and can be identified by the debtors and those who don’t and remain anonymous. Which set do you suppose would be more inclined toward aggressive tactics, bullying, etc.? Does such a study exist?

    The fact that there is a social disjuncture in the second set leads me to suppose and report anecdotally that they are more agressive. In fact, you have an “us and them” phenomenon in play, although that may be an oversimplification of multimodal interactions. There is an interesting new book by Bruce Wexler entitled, “Brain and Culture.” It deals with the “us versus them” phenomenon.

    The challenge is to present a picture of the world as US. the problem is that all marketers and politicians rule the world by a divide and conquer strategy, amplifying and playing upon minor differences in and among groups.

    As to the final query, we need robust and resilent checks and balances, and an awareness of the dangers and distortions that come with overweening power and influence in whatever form. One might do worse than repeat Lord Acton: Power Corrupts; Absolute power corrupts absolutely.

  5. #5 Paul Sunstone
    April 4, 2007

    I wonder if there’s any gender difference in the likelihood of someone’s taking the greater share of cookies when appointed leader?

  6. #6 Terry
    April 5, 2007

    Paul Sunstone … the women ate the most cookies. Especially if they had chocolate in them.

  7. #7 thinktank
    April 7, 2007

    I do tend to agree partially with you. Well I was just observing the other day while watching the series ‘lost’ how all the founding fathers of the great nations had the qualities of honesty, integrity etc, and the later ones seem to be quite the opposite.