Does power really corrupt?

Power can make people corrupt indeed. (photo courtesy of

By Anthony O. Alcantara

“Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely. Great men are almost always bad men.”

British historian Lord Acton said it.

In the Philippines, there’s a lot of anecdotal evidence to support this. But does power really corrupt? Or does it only attract corruptible people? This calls for scientific evidence.

Recently I came across an article describing a series of experiments by Joris Lammers at Tilburg University in the Netherlands, and Adam Galinsky of Northwestern University in the US.  Let me summarize their results.

Brewing moral hypocrisy

In one experiment, they induced or “primed” people to feel that they are in a high power or low power position. How? By asking them to write about an experience that made them feel they were in a position of high power or low power. For example, a participant writing about the time when her team won the volleyball championship makes her feel powerful. Another participant writing about his failure in an important test makes him feel weak.

The high-power group and low-power group were then split into two groups. Using a nine-point morality scale, where 1 means highly immoral and 9 means highly moral, half were asked how objectionable it is for other people to over-report travel expenses at work.

The other half were asked to play dice privately in a cubicle and report the results to a lab assistant. The possible dice scores ranged from 0 to 100, with 50 being the average. The participants were then told that they will receive tickets for a lottery after the experiment depending on their reported scores in the dice game. Higher dice scores meant more tickets.

“More moral than you.”

Those in the travel expenses group who were primed to feel powerful reported a 5.8 on the morality scale compared to 7.2 for the low-power group. This indicated that the powerful were apparently more “moral” if the situation involved other people. In other words, they were more ready to condemn others.

However, in the dice game, a little hypocrisy crept in. The high-power group reported an average dice score of 70, compared to an average of 59 for the low-power group. I know the low-power group cheated a little, but then the high-power group cheated significantly more.

In other words, they were more inclined to cheat, thinking perhaps unconsciously that it was more okay for them to do so than others.

And that’s not all. There were more experiments that explored different situations such as breaking the speed limit when late for an appointment, and making tax declarations.

When people are harsher on themselves

In the tax declarations experiment, high-power individuals gave a rating of 6.6 for other people who wiggled out of paying more taxes. But if they rated themselves, they gave a much higher, or more moral, rating of 7.6.

Low-power individuals showed the opposite results. They were harsher on themselves, with 6.8, compared to 7.7 for others.

There were also studies that focused on the feeling of entitlement. As in the other experiments, one group was primed for being in a low-power position and another in a high-power position. The two groups were further divided into two. One group was made to feel that they deserved their lot. The other group was made to feel that their being in a low- or high-power position was not legitimate or undeserved.

The results showed that the high-power individuals who had been primed to feel that they were entitled to their powerful position felt there was room for a little moral hypocrisy. They felt it was more okay for them to bend the rules.

When power is undeserved

Those in the low-power position, whether they felt it was legitimate or undeserved, were all harsher on themselves.

But here’s the thing. High-power individuals who were made to feel that they did not deserve their position showed similar ratings with the low-power group. They were harsher on themselves than with others.

Of course, the experiments failed to answer other interesting questions. Are there people in the high-power group who are as virtuous as those in the low-power group? What makes them so? Are there people in the low-power position who are as morally-depraved as those in the high-power position? What can we learn from these exceptions? How can people be more moral whether or not they have power?

3 things

Now what does this mean for those of us who are going to vote?

For me, just three things to keep in mind:

1. People in power who have a strong feeling of entitlement are more likely to become corrupt.

2. A mindset of humility, perhaps what others call servant leadership, can help temper this moral hypocrisy.

3. It may be a good idea to elect a wimp to office… provided he knows he doesn’t deserve it.

Just some food for thought.



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