Power Corrupts Rational Thought

Wray Herbert reports research showing that a sense of power gives people the illusion of control over random events:

One recent study may offer some insight into the connection between power and hubris and delusional thinking. Stanford University psychologist Nathanael Fast actually started off exploring the positive effects of power. His idea was that power creates a false sense of control over life’s events, and that this feeling of control in turn boosts self-esteem and optimism. But his findings apply just as well to prideful overconfidence. Here’s the experiment:

Fast and his colleagues used a well-tested laboratory technique to prime some volunteers’ sense of power. Then they used a clever test to see if these feelings of power influenced their sense of control over random events. They had all the volunteers play a dice game to see if they could win a prize, and they were allowed to either roll the dice themselves or to let someone else roll the dice. A roll of dice is random, no matter who rolls them, so those who chose to roll the dice were displaying an unrealistic sense of control over random events.

The results were unambiguous. As reported in the journal Psychological Science, each and every one of the volunteers who was primed for power (compared to controls who were not) grabbed the dice. They had the delusional belief that, by rolling the dice themselves, they could control the outcome.

Herbert suggests this as an explanation of political corruption: due to a higher sense of control, people in positions of power see themselves as more able to evade detection and punishment. While that’s probably true to a certain degree, I suspect the the impact of illusions of control are much greater on well-intentioned policy.  A false sense of control will turn even the most altruistic rulers (though power does corrupt morally, as well) into men of system apt see society in easily-influenced, mechanistic terms.

2 Responses

  1. […] Regulators and politicians are human beings (I think that’s a safe assumption). As such they have cognitive limitations, as well as hopes and dreams independent of the hopes and dreams of voters (though there is some natural overlap). They also have inherent biases (such as a belief that they have more power to affect outcomes than they really have). […]

  2. The statement “power corrupts” is beginning to be put through scientific scrutiny and it may end up being a mystical notion.

    Not that such notions are bad, it is just that we should not gloss over anything should we?

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