The book! Part Three: Power and Corruption

I am using the software Scrivener to write this book. I fail to recall how I came across Scrivener but, boy of boy, am I glad I did. It is fabulous. One can set out the raw structure of the book, section by section, chapter by chapter, much helping keep one’s mind on the construction of the book as the writing progresses.

All of which is a preamble for me telling you that when I clicked on the chapter ‘folder’ that was named Power and corruption, a folder empty of any words, my heart sank. Power and corruption! Where, oh where, does one start!

Then almost immediately kicked myself; metaphorically speaking! Simply for the reason that one of the most famous sayings is surely that of Lord Acton, the 19th-century British historian: “Power tends to corrupt; Absolute power corrupts absolutely.That is the place to start this essay on power and corruption.

History has plenty of examples of the tendency of power to corrupt. Of course, when the word ‘power’ is used on its own it misses its natural companion words; the words ‘other people’. Ergo: Power over other people tends to corrupt; Absolute power over other people corrupts absolutely. Napoleon Bonaparte declaring himself as emperor comes to mind, as does further back in time, the Roman emperors, who declared themselves gods, demonstrated absolute corruption from the absolute power, over other people, that they wielded.

Anyway, returning to Lord Acton, or to give him his full name, John Emerich Edward Dalberg Acton. He was the 19th century historian and moralist who was otherwise known more simply as Lord Acton, as in the first Baron Acton (Lord Acton lived from 1834 until 1902). His expression, “Absolute power corrupts absolutely; ……” arose expressed in a letter to Bishop Mandell Creighton in 1887:

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

Great men are almost always bad men: Now there’s a statement to play with!

Despite the text written in Lord Acton’s letter to the Bishop having become a favourite of the many collectors of quotations, it is probable that Lord Acton didn’t invent the idea; quotations very similar had been uttered by several authors well before 1887.

Let us explore the central question as to why it is that power has a corrupting characteristic; a largely corrupting characteristic might be more accurate. For in the Smithsonian magazine of October, 2012, there was an article that examined the social science behind why power brings out both the worst in some people, but also, at times, the best in people.

Why Power Corrupts

His [Lord Acton’s] maxim has been vividly illustrated in psychological studies, notably the 1971 Stanford Prison Experiment, which was halted when one group of students arbitrarily assigned to serve as “prison guards” over another group began to abuse their wards.

But new scholarship is bringing fresh subtlety to psychologists’ understanding of when power leads people to take ethical shortcuts — and when it doesn’t. Indeed, for some people, power seems to bring out their best. After all, good people do win elective office, says Katherine A. DeCelles, a professor of management at the University of Toronto, and no few business executives want to do good while doing well. “When you give good people power,” DeCelles says she wondered, are they more able than others “to enact that moral identity, to do what’s right?”

In a study recently published in the Journal of Applied Psychology, DeCelles and her co-authors found that the answer is yes. People’s sense of “moral identity”—the degree to which they thought it was important to their sense of self to be “caring,” “compassionate,” “fair,” “generous” and so on—shaped their responses to feelings of power.

Christopher Shea, the author of the Smithsonian article, went on to explain that:

DeCelles and her colleagues developed moral identity scores for two groups, 173 working adults and 102 undergraduates, by asking the participants to rate how important those ethically related attributes were to them. The researchers had some participants write an essay recalling an incident in which they felt powerful, while others wrote about an ordinary day. Then the participants took part in lab experiments to probe how they balanced self-interest against the common good.

Christopher Shea then concluded:

The experiment involving the adults found a similar relationship between moral identity, ethical behavior and innate aggressiveness. Assertive people who scored low on the moral-identity scale were more likely to say they’d cheated their employer in the past week than more passive types with similar moral-identity scores. But among those with high moral-identity scores, the assertive people were less likely to have cheated.

In sum, the study found, power doesn’t corrupt; it heightens pre-existing ethical tendencies. Which brings to mind another maxim, from Abraham Lincoln: “Nearly all men can stand adversity, but if you want to test a man’s character, give him power.

Yet despite the evidence presented that power does not automatically corrupt, the news is so often full of stories of powerful men, well predominantly men, behaving badly in all manner of ways: sex with their staff, assaulting others, such as hotel maids, cheating and lying. So if there is no direct wiring between power and corruption, that power does not automatically corrupt, it still leaves open the question of why power so often does corrupt. What motivates people in power to behave so badly?

In my research, I came across an article in WIRED magazine, How Power Corrupts, that revealed:

Psychologists refer to this [Why does power corrupt] as the paradox of power. The very traits that helped leaders accumulate control in the first place all but disappear once they rise to power. Instead of being polite, honest and outgoing, they become impulsive, reckless and rude. According to psychologists, one of the main problems with authority is that it makes us less sympathetic to the concerns and emotions of others. For instance, several studies have found that people in positions of authority are more likely to rely on stereotypes and generalizations when judging other people. They also spend much less time making eye contact, at least when a person without power is talking.

Then later on Jonah Lehrer, the author of the article, explained:

Although people almost always know the right thing to do — cheating is wrong — their sense of power makes it easier to rationalize away the ethical lapse. For instance, when the psychologists asked the subjects (in both low- and high-power conditions) how they would judge an individual who drove too fast when late for an appointment, people in the high-power group consistently said it was worse when others committed those crimes than when they did themselves. In other words, the feeling of eminence led people to conclude that they had a good reason for speeding — they’re important people, with important things to do — but that everyone else should follow the posted signs.


The larger lesson is that Foucault had a point: The dynamics of power can profoundly influence how we think. When we climb the ladder of status, our inner arguments get warped and our natural sympathy for others is vanquished. Instead of fretting about the effects of our actions, we just go ahead and act. We deserve what we want. And how dare they resist. Don’t they know who we are?

At this point, I sat staring at the screen for some time, wondering what to make of my research findings. Just ‘hearing’ my mind coming up with questions, questions that were rhetorical in nature, not hearing hard, clear questions that could command hard, clear answers. Questions such as:

• Is this characteristic of power warping our judgment, profoundly influencing how we think, as Foucault is recorded as saying, ‘hard-wired’ in humans?
• If so, has it always been this way?
• If not having always been this way with man, then what brought it on?
• Irrespective of the scale of an emergency affecting mankind, either on a regional or global scale, would power always have a tendency to corrupt?
• What cultural changes would need to take place to break the link between power and corruption?
• Indeed, could there be any changes that would achieve this?

Readers will have realised that I have not offered a single example, over and above the fleeting mentions of Napoleon Bonaparte and the Roman emperors, of power and corruption in recent times. For the straightforward reason that there are too many examples of the abuses of power around and picking, almost randomly, one from here and one from there, in no way adds anything to this chapter. That’s my view and I’m sticking to it!
1,443 words. Copyright © 2014 Paul Handover

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