Start chatting with a colleague about the abuse of power at work and it’s likely that one of you will inject Lord Acton’s legendary dictum, ‘Power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely,’ into the conversation.
John Bargh, a social and cognitive psychologist and an expert on the unconscious mind, reveals exactly why and how power corrupts us in his book Before You Know It: The Unconscious Reasons We Do What We Do.
His research shows that power abusers are oblivious to the corrupting effects of power on their own behaviour. In many cases, power seems to change them so they are unaware that any abuse of power has taken place. So why does power have such a corrupting effect on us?
Bargh puts it like this: ‘Power has the natural effect of activating one’s own personal goals – the ones that are achieved at the expense of other people. Power gives you the ability to get what you want at the expense of other people. Power gives you the ability to get what you want despite others’ objections or lack of consent.’
Ever since the New York Times and the New Yorker in October 2017 published bombshell reports detailing a decade of alleged sexual harassment and assault by the film mogul Harvey Weinstein, sexual abuse and the misuse of power has been headline news across the world. Bargh’s lab has been studying sexual harassment since the 1990s, when Clarence Thomas, a US Supreme Court nominee, was accused of inappropriate advances by a former employee, Anita Hill.
In 1993, Louise Fitzgerald, a law professor at the University of Illinois, reviewed the body of quid pro quo sexual harassment cases. Quid pro quo sex cases are some of the most disquieting forms of sexual abuse, as in ‘I’ll give you this [raise] in exchange for that [sex].’
Fitzgerald’s study found that 75% of the accused harassers did not know or realise they were doing anything wrong. How could this be? Bargh wondered whether power was subconsciously influencing the harassers themselves.
By the mid-1990s, researchers had developed personality tests that distinguished between men who were likely to sexually harass and those who were not. So Bargh set up an experiment to test his hypothesis. He found that those males who scored high in harassment and aggression tendencies became attracted to women directly because of the power they exerted over them.
If that’s the bad news, the good news is that power made ‘absolutely no difference to the participants who scored low on sexual and aggression tendencies’. In other words, their power had no unconscious effect on their attraction to women.
Research by one of Bargh’s colleagues, Margaret Clark, showed that ‘not everyone has selfish exploitative goals to other people. There are also those of us who are communally orientated towards fellow humans and actually put other people’s interests above their own.’
Bargh and a group of colleagues at NYU thought that people with communal orientations react to power differently from the rest of us. So it proved to be. Those with communal goals are not corrupted by power. They put other people’s interests above their own. By contrast, those with selfish goals who sit in the power chair become less concerned about what others thought of them.
Because power has been shown to sit unconsciously, many universities and businesses have made it a matter of policy to forbid dating and romantic relationships between students, professors, bosses and subordinates or anyone holding potential power over the other person’s outcome.
While the power holder may consciously believe that it is all innocent and above board, the relatively powerless person may well feel uncomfortable and worry about the real consequences for their career if they do not return the interest that is being shown in them.
We need to be especially careful when it comes to our own impartial and possibly selfish goals. This is why it is so important to cultivate a genuine care and concern for others because these tendencies will reveal themselves.
Neuroscience research shows that individuals who feel a sense of power are less likely to activate this prefrontal cortex and cingulate cortex, which represents the neural circuitry that pays attention to others.
Dacher Keltner, professor of psychology at the University of California, Berkeley, has spent 25 years studying how power changes us. To stop abuse, Keltner argues that we need to change the social systems that sustain the abuses of power.
First, he says, we need to pay heed to and share the ‘harrowing stories of the abused’. These sorts of tales fuel social change.
Second, we need to promote more women to positions of power. Abuse is more likely to occur in heavily male-dominated environments. In Hollywood, where much of the recent abuse has occurred, only 4% of film directors are female. Studies show that shifting the balance of power reduces the level of abuse.
Finally, Keltner says we need to ‘debunk the myths that underpin the abuse of power’. A particularly prevalent one is that women are turned on by men with power. Research shows that this one, like all the arguments that are used to justify or rationalise abuse, is mere nonsense.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Harry Mills is the author of Secret Sauce: How to Pack Your Messages with Persuasive Punch and the expert on persuasion for the Harvard ManageMentor programme.
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