Power Doesn't Corrupt, Study Suggests

Lyndon B. Johnson, the 36th president of the United States, who was renowned for his domineering personality. (This image was taken on Nov. 17, 1967, during the Vietnam War.) (Image credit: AP Photo/Files)

Strike one against the idea that "Washington insiders" are corrupted by power and can no longer think independently.

Rather, new research based on experiments with college students who were primed to feel powerful suggests that, at least in some cases, power tends to shield people from outside opinions, leaving them to rely more on their own insights.

While the study is not a knock-out blow to the long-held assumption that power corrupts, it does indicate the reality is more nuanced. It also suggests President-elect Barack Obama may be shielded from the influence of advisors once he is sworn in this January, said researcher Joe Magee of New York University.

"Our research suggests that people may not need to worry too much about power corrupting Obama," Magee said. "His newfound power might enable the change he desires rather than that power changing him instead."

He added, "This is contrary to what most people think: that the longer he works in Washington the more he will be influenced by the same old ways of doing things."

The results, detailed in the December issue of the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, also suggest powerful people, such as CEOs and other higher-ups, including Obama, might be protected from corruption, especially if it goes against their personal values.

"Although power is often thought of as a pernicious force that corrupts people who possess it," said lead researcher Adam Galinsky of the Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University in Illinois, "it is the protection from situational influence that helps powerful individuals surmount social obstacles and express the seemingly unpopular ideas of today that transform into the ideals of tomorrow."

Power protects

The findings come from five experiments in which groups of students were either primed to feel powerful or not-so powerful. One of the priming methods involved having students complete sentence tasks that either included "power" words, such as "authority," "executive" and "control," or words unrelated to power, such as "automobile" and "envelope."

In one experiment, more than 50 undergraduate students were asked to come up with novel names for various products. Researchers provided examples of types of names typically found for each product to make it even tougher for participants to come up with a completely new name (unrelated to an example). That's because guidance in the way of examples can place boundaries on one's imagination, the researchers said.

In a similar creativity experiment involving 75 students, participants had to draw a creature they hypothetically had discovered on an alien planet. Some of the participants got to look at an example of a drawing, though were told not to copy any aspects of that drawing.

For both creativity tasks, the individuals primed to feel powerful came up with more unique ideas that bore no resemblance to examples given compared with the low-power students.

"Our findings indicate that the powerful will generate creative ideas that are less influenced by others," Galinsky said.

Keepin' it real

Another experiment tested how likely individuals were to conform to peer pressure.

Participants completed a sentence-formation task that most people said they disliked. When the low-power participants (primed to feel that way) were given bogus feedback saying that others really enjoyed the task, these participants said they greatly enjoyed the task too. By comparison, high-power participants said they didn't enjoy the task.

The researchers also found power can help people to keep it real. Another of the recent experiments revealed that participants in the power group expressed underlying attitudes and thoughts that were uninfluenced by others, more so than low-power students.

People in high-power jobs are "more likely to express attitudes that don't necessarily conform to prevailing peer pressure," Galinsky said, "and be more willing to counter with opposing views or statements in a discussion or argument."

Jeanna Bryner
Live Science Editor-in-Chief

Jeanna served as editor-in-chief of Live Science. Previously, she was an assistant editor at Scholastic's Science World magazine. Jeanna has an English degree from Salisbury University, a master's degree in biogeochemistry and environmental sciences from the University of Maryland, and a graduate science journalism degree from New York University. She has worked as a biologist in Florida, where she monitored wetlands and did field surveys for endangered species. She also received an ocean sciences journalism fellowship from Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution.