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The famous British historian Lord Acton once said, “Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.” And science tends to agree, but how we can prevent power from going to our heads?

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Sources:
https://www.smithsonianmag.com/science-nature/why-power-corrupts-37165345/
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Images:
https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Lord_Emerich_Edward_Dalberg_Acton.jpg
[ ♪INTRO ].

Having power over others or to change the course of events can do strange things to your brain. It could be good for you in lots of ways.

Research has shown it can help you think more creatively, be better organized, stay focused, and remember things more easily. But there’s a also dark side to that power. As the famous British historian Lord Acton once said: Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.

And if you look at the history of human leadership — from dictators to corporate executives — it’s easy to see where Acton is coming from. Science seems to agree with

Acton: power can definitely go to your head. But unlike Acton, scientists have also come up with some ways you might be able to prevent that. One of the most well-known studies that looked into the dubious influence of power was the Stanford Prison Experiment. In the now-infamous experiment, university students were randomly assigned to be either a guard or prisoner, and within a matter of days the students assigned to be the guards had become so sadistic that the researchers were forced to stop the experiment.

But it turns out this experiment was more theatrics than science. According to a recent interview with the lead researcher and one of the study participants, the guards were told to act cruel and the harrowing prisoner breakdowns were at least partly the result of some dramatic acting. There’s still plenty of evidence that power corrupts people, though.

One study, now called the Cookie Monster study, found that people in positions of power were more likely to be greedy. In the experiment, researchers divided people into groups of three, and with one person randomly chosen to be the leader. The groups then did some simple tasks and when they were done, the researchers brought in a plate of four cookies.

And surprise, surprise, the person who was chosen to be the leader was more likely to take a second cookie. I can tell you, from my experience that I am the one of who will have a second cookie in this office. Taking a second cookie might not seem like a big deal.

It’s certainly not the same as a dictator deciding to keep extra taxes for themselves in their Swiss bank account or something. But it is an example of someone in a position of — admittedly minor — power acting in their own personal interest when there are limited resources. The researchers also noticed that the leaders ate differently, tending to chew with their mouths open and get crumbs all over the place.

Like… Cookie Monster. Another study asked some people to write about a time when they had power over someone else, while the others were told to write about a time someone else had power over them. Other studies have found that’s a way to manipulate whether someone’s feeling powerful.

Then, they had the participants draw the letter E on their forehead – something that kind of forces you to see yourself from someone else’s point of view. People who were feeling powerful were three times more likely to draw the E pointing in the direction that would make sense if they were reading it, but was backwards for everyone else. According to the researchers, the results suggested that those in power might be less likely to see things from other people’s perspectives.

Over the last few decades, lots of other studies have found that people in positions of power or people who feel powerful also showed signs of less empathy:. They tended to act more impulsively, were less aware of risks, became more selfish, were more likely to cheat, and sucked at guessing what someone else was feeling or how they might interpret something the person in power said. So maybe Lord Acton was right after all — power does corrupt.

That said, like a lot of human psychology research, the studies on this are small. And for ethical reasons, these days you can’t design experiments where someone has power over others in a really significant way. But the research we do have can help guide psychologists’ theories, even if we can’t draw definite conclusions.

And either way, there are some things you can do to help yourself feel more empathy when you’re in a position of power. Because as we know: with great power comes great responsibility. Some research suggests it could help to keep in mind times when you’ve felt powerless.

And becoming more self-aware could be useful, too. Other experts recommend reflecting on compassion, like by doing compassion meditation, where you try to create an emotional state of kindness and empathy. If nothing else, the world can always use a little more kindness.

Do I feel like the staff gave me this particular script for a particular reason, or hoping not. But it doesn’t matter, I‘ve fired them all and ate the last cookie. Thanks for watching this episode of SciShow Psych!

Speaking of kindness: if you’re part of our Patreon community, thank you for helping us keep making episodes like this. We couldn’t do it without your support. If you’re not yet a patron and want to learn more about that, you can go to patreon.com/scishow to find out more. [♪ OUTRO ].