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!