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New research about the way we live

How (and why) the mighty keep falling

Psychologists have a name for the misbehavior that seems to be rife among our public officials, corporate executives and world-class athletes. They call it the “paradox of power.”

In other words, the traits that helped these leaders rise in the first place (being diplomatic and forging social connections), tend to disappear once they’re on top. Instead of being polite, honest and outgoing, many of them become impulsive, reckless and rude.

“It’s an incredibly consistent effect,” says Dacher Keltner, Ph.D., who has studied hierarchal behavior at the University of California, Berkeley, with his colleague, Professor Cameron Anderson of the Haas School of Business. “When you give people power, they basically start acting like fools. They flirt inappropriately, tease in a hostile fashion, and become totally impulsive.”

But in a world where one’s bad behavior can be so easily documented, you have to wonder: Why do they run the risk?

One of the big problems, the psychologists say, is that having authority makes us less sympathetic to the concerns and emotions of others. Several studies have found that people in power are more likely to judge others based on stereotypes and generalizations. Powerful people spend less time making eye contact, at least when they’re talking to people without power.

Of course, power doesn’t turn everyone into a tyrant. Some leaders end up just being tough, which may serve them well.

At its worst, power can also turn us into hypocrites. In a study by Adam Galinsky, Ph.D., at Northwestern University, subjects were asked to think about an experience of power or powerlessness. Then they were placed in “power” and “non-power” groups and were asked a number of ethics-related questions. The “power” groups were found to be more likely to fudge their scores upward—to make themselves look better.

There’s no easy cure for the paradox of power, says Keltner. He suggests that transparency is the best treatment. Serious abuses may be contained when people know they’re being monitored—say, by a regulatory watchdog or a truly independent board of directors. However, we know that any kind of real oversight is resisted by the powerful.

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