The Paradox of Power (!?)

May 20, 2011

Jonah Lehrer, who writes the Frontal Cortex blog for Wired magazine, and also wrote How We Decide, a terrific book on the neuroscience of making decisions, has a post this week called How Power Corrupts.

It is occasioned by the arrest of Dominic Strauss-Kahn, then head of the IMF, and by the recent revelations of infidelity on the part of then Gov. Arnold Schwartzenegger.  As usual with Lehrer, the post is fascinating, but also troubling for me, as someone who holds (for a few more weeks) a position of authority and power.

About the two headline making men, Lehrer asks,  “What motivates this awful behavior? Why does power corrupt?”  And says, “Psychologists refer to this as the paradox of power.”  And here’s his answer:

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.

That’s pretty strong.  Frightening, actually.  He doesn’t appear leave much room for anyone to hold power and escape this fate.  Note: “all but disappear once they rise to power.”  Note: “authority … makes us less sympathetic to the concerns and emotions of others.”

I can’t help but ask myself — and ask Jonah — is that what has happened to me over fourteen years as a college president?  Is there no escaping this tendency?  I’m certainly prepared to acknowledge that there is a risk of falling into bad behavior.  But Lehrer seems to be saying it’s a probability, maybe even a near certainty.

Is that so?  Is the “paradox of power” that inexorable?  Are there no moral disciplines, no protections against this happening?

Is the holding of a position of power and authority something akin to being one of those nuclear workers in Japan who went into the Fukushima reactors, knowing that the job had to be done by someone but would almost certainly kill them?

I can’t believe that’s so.


About Doug Bennett

Doug Bennett is Emeritus President and Professor of Politics at Earlham College. He has a wife, Ellen, and two sons, Tommy (born 1984) and Robbie (born 2003).
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