Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely. So goes the famous dictum of Lord Acton, the 19th-century British historian. Dacher Keltner, a Professor of Psychology at University of California, Berkeley, has written about the “power paradox” – the fact that many of the qualities and character traits which help individuals achieve leadership roles (e.g. empathy, social intelligence, etc.) are precisely the ones most likely to deteriorate once power is achieved.

One of the most infamous studies into the corrupting influence of power was the Stanford Prison Experiment of 1971. A group of students were arbitrarily assigned the roles and uniforms of either prison guards or inmates. The experiment had to be aborted early when some of the ‘guards’ subjected their wards to psychological torture and abuse. The researcher behind the experiment, Philip Zimbardo, argues that it demonstrates how power can corrupt anyone (though the study has been criticised by psychologists since, not least for perceived ethical issues).

A more recent study has linked corruption to levels of testosterone. Professor John Antonakis of the Faculty of Business and Economics at the University of Lausanne and his colleagues found that the rate of corruption among their test subjects depended upon the amount of power an individual wielded:

“In the first experiment, results showed that high-power leaders took antisocial decisions at a significantly higher rate than low-power leaders… Interestingly, honest individuals were initially shielded from taking antisocial decisions – but, with time, even they slid down the slippery, corrupting slope of power. Even more interesting was our observation that those who had high levels of testosterone were most corrupt when they had high power.”

So, what is the solution? According to one study, there are several factors that contribute to and facilitate high levels of corruption, including low press freedom, low levels of democracy, weak civil participation and low political transparency. Activists have long argued that greater transparency is a bulwark against corruption, and the media has a clear role in holding the powerful to account. The classic solution to corruption is the separation of powers so that no single person or institution rules absolutely, and to have multiple checks and balances built into the political system.

Does power lead to corruption? And are transparency, press freedom, and a functioning series of checks and balances on power the best remedy? Let us know your thoughts and comments in the form below and we’ll take them to policymakers and experts for their reactions!

IMAGE CREDITS: BigStock – (c) polack

13 comments Post a commentcomment

What do YOU think?

  1. avatar
    EU Reform-Proactive

    Does power lead to corruption? Absolutely!

    It is valid for individuals, business entities, and political formations.
    So, what is the solution in an EU context? To take such issues to EU policymakers (or any too close think tanks) who are determined to build an empire is probably the wrong approach.

    How can & should the EU 27 nations observe & judge themselves during their orbit around on their political sun? Standby & let the EU Council prescribe & steal more power from their not so sovereign members?

    Isn’t that what this article warns about?

    How best to create- e.g. a 27 European national economic cum political society- each remaining sovereign but cooperating which each other as & when it is beneficial & advantages? Too weak?

    Why construct another empire, which historically lasts on average for 330 years? Long enough for some, too risky for others. There are enough well-meaning and knowledgeable people with just the right testosterone in Europe! Come on!


  2. avatar

    Less private lobbying less corruption in government

  3. avatar

    Next pole should be, Is the Sun rising always from the East?

  4. avatar

    Less power in government, less corruption

    • avatar
      Debating Europe

      Who should hold power instead then?

    • avatar

      People, local communities?

  5. avatar

    hell no.
    peoples, who have criminal mind, does the corruption.
    power just make it transparent.

  6. avatar

    Rather, corruption leads to power.

  7. avatar

    Everyone who has power should also have character, good principles, ethics and moral. Thats what is missing in politics. Then comes high corruptions and taxes to pay the banrupcy of the coutries. The workers suffer a lot and are poorer than ever.

  8. avatar
    Catherine Benning

    Does power lead to corruption?

    I don’t believe it leads to corruption, most are already corrupt in order to get into powerful positions. Look at all those MP’s who got into their seats by telling the voter what he or she wanted to hear, and once set up in the position of ‘power’ did everything completely opposite of what they told the constituents they intended to do. Tony Blair the main mover and shaker of that fashion. The Labour man who loved war. Big money in war.

    Power simply gives them a wider forum to play the money game.

  9. avatar

    People, Principles and policies.
    It is about -the people in power, the principles that guide their life and thus decisions and then the policies that flow from this

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