A little power corrupts way more than absolute control

The British historian Lord Acton once observed, "All power tends to corrupt and absolute power corrupts absolutely." It's a powerful sentiment, a warning against placing trust in dictators...but it might also be wrong. It's those with just a little power you have to watch out for.

That's the finding of researchers at USC, Stanford, and the Kellogg School of Management. The team argues that people who are in a position of authority but don't have much perceived rank or status are more likely to abuse their power than those with high status. As they explain in their paper, this hypothesis flows from two basic assumptions. First, that being in a position of low status can feel demeaning, even threatening. Second, that being in a position of power gives people the ability to act on their internal feelings and impulse.

You can probably see how that might be a dangerous combination, and there's plenty of anecdotal evidence one can point to. On the more mundane level, one might look at tyrannical middle managers or condescending clerks at the Post Office or DMV. (Although I'd argue the latter has as much to do with customers treating said clerks like crap because they go in expecting an unpleasant confrontation, which sets up a vicious circle of mistreatment.) But there are also more serious implications of this - the torture and humiliation of prisoners at Abu Ghraib might be explained in part by this hypothesis.

Here's how the researchers tested their idea. Study participants were told they were taking part in a business exercise where they would be given a position and asked to assign tasks to a coworker. About half the participants were given the presumably high-status title of "Idea Producer", while the other half were just given the role of "Worker." They then were given a list of ten tasks and told to choose tasks for their coworker to perform.

The low-status Workers consistently chose more demeaning tasks than the Idea Producers did - for instance, they were much more likely to choose the task "Bark like a dog three times" for their poor coworkers. The researchers believe that it isn't power in a vacuum that corrupts - rather, it's a perceived lack of respect or admiration from the community at large that drives people to abuse their authority and mistreat others.

Research leader Nathaniel Fast explains:

"Although a lot of work has looked at these two aspects of hierarchy, it has typically looked at the isolated effects of either power or status, not both. We wanted to understand how those two aspects of hierarchy interact. We predicted that when people have a role that gives them power but lacks status — and the respect that comes with that status — then it can lead to demeaning behaviors. Put simply, it feels bad to be in a low status position and the power that goes with that role gives them a way to take action on those negative feelings."

The researchers argue that it's neither power nor low status that causes people to mistreat each others - rather, it's the combination of these two that makes abuse that much more likely. And, of course, there are plenty of other permutations that can lead to corruption - this study is certainly not arguing that all dictators are really good dudes who are looking out for everyone's best interest.

But this research does indicate that power and status are more closely intertwined than has often been given credit for, and you can't understand how one leads to corruption and abuse without considering the other. The authors argue that one of the best ways to reduce abuse and corruption is to make sure everyone feels respected, regardless of their status. Of course, that also just seems like the decent thing to do anyway. Another, somewhat more cynical potential bulwark is the prospect of advancement - people are less likely to abuse their power if they truly believe it hurts their chances of getting promoted.

The Journal of Experimental Psychology via Stanford. Image by Micah Sittig on Flickr.