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.
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?