5 Scientific Reasons Powerful People Will Always Suck
A study of personality types once found that as a group, serial killers scored highest in "superficial charm, an exaggerated sense of self-worth, glibness, lying, lack of remorse and manipulation of others." The other highest-scoring group for these undesirable traits? Politicians.
Again and again science has found that being in charge not only attracts terrifying douchebags, but creates them as well. And with that, here's the scariest article you'll read this month:
Power and Self-Absorption Go Hand in Hand
Try something for us. Write the word "ASS" on your forehead with a marker. If you refuse to do that, just picture yourself writing it, but really imagine you have the letters up there.
Hold that thought.
Science says there is a very logical reason that those in power don't actually give a damn about you: They are too busy thinking about themselves. There are several reasons for this, according to research.
First, researchers found that in leaderless situations, those with high opinions of themselves will take charge, for better or for worse. Well, that makes sense -- they think they're awesome, so of course they think they should be in charge. The problem, though, is that this same, often unwarranted, confidence also persuades the followers to follow them. And so they climb through the ranks by basically being the biggest loudmouth braggarts in the room.
"Kanye West" is a position of power, right?
The other problem is that the narcissistic types can manage to lead effectively -- for the short term. They're great at convincing everyone they have all the answers, but at the end of the day they can't take their eyes off their own self-interest long enough to focus on long-term goals such as "not losing all of our money." Actually being in power only makes it worse, which brings us back to the ASS on your forehead.
When you drew the imaginary letters, where did the letter "A" wind up? On your left, so that the word reads normally if you look in a mirror? That's how a lot of people would do it -- after all, that's the way you write things. Left to right.
Unless you're Asianese.
But that would be making the word backward for anyone else trying to read it. If you took the time to stop and consider that, and then carefully wrote the letters and word backward so it would be readable to a person facing you, that says a lot about your outlook toward other people.
They actually did that experiment in a study at Northwestern University. They randomly assigned a group of people to hold a position of power during the study, and assigned another group to a position where they'd have no power at all. Later, they gave everyone a simple task: Draw a capital letter "E" on their own foreheads. Same as we had you do with the word ASS.
The results were startling. People in the powerful group were almost three times as likely to carelessly draw the letter so that it was unreadable to anyone else. Those in the powerless group were the ones who stopped, thought about it and turned the letter around so that others could read it.
Not pictured: consideration for other people.
That's right: Even meaningless, arbitrary power, assigned purely for the experiment, was enough to make the subjects less likely to stop for a few seconds and consider the perspectives of others. Now imagine what an actual position of power would do.
Oh, we're just getting started here.
Feeling Powerful Makes It Easier to Lie
It's estimated that the average person lies up to six times a day -- it's even considered an important developmental milestone in babies, which presumably means that nobody will accept you as a person until you figure out how to make shit up to keep yourself out of trouble. So you can imagine how much politicians and CEOs have to bullshit us on a minute-to-minute basis to get their reputations. Well, there's a scientific reason they are the way they are.
Warning: Exposure to truth may cause anaphylaxis.
You'd think this would be obvious -- that liars tend to get into positions of power because they're so good at lying (and science says you're right), but there's a much weirder factor at play.
Researchers at Columbia Business School used a similar setup to the "E" experiment above, where they did a role-play that divided subjects into leaders and subordinates. Leaders were even given a fancy, large office; the underlings got a small, windowless room. All of them were then tempted to lie (they found a $100 bill and were put in a situation where they'd have to lie about it to the people running the experiment if they wanted to keep it).
We'd probably just have grabbed the $100 and bolted for the parking lot.
After a nice round of vigorous lying, both groups of subjects were tested for stress hormone levels. Researchers also studied a video-tape of the subjects lying their asses off. The result, in their words:
"Low-power individuals showed the expected emotional, cognitive, physiological, and behavioral signs of deception; in contrast, powerful people demonstrated no evidence of lying across emotion, cognition, physiology, or behavior."
Once more, that's after a couple of hours of completely fake power. These people were chosen at random, but when they were stuffed into a fancy room that made them feel like big-shots, their feelings of guilt about lying melted away.
And that made them better liars; it's those unpleasant feelings of guilt and stress that cause the physical cues that let people know we're lying. Add a feeling of power to the mix and the opposite happens. In fact, instead of negative emotions, the study found that a powerful person actually experiences a positive internal response. These people feel joyful relaxation as a result of lying their fucking faces off.
It's almost as if the feeling of being in power made them think the normal rules of morality didn't apply to them. Which leads us to ...
Ted Haggard. And also this next point.
Experiments Show Power and Hypocrisy Are Linked in the Brain
This one goes a long way toward explaining the almost endemic hypocrisy of politicians and business leaders we see in the news every day. It explains why so many vehemently anti-gay politicians and religious leaders are creepy sexual deviants. It explains why banks are currently refusing to lend to anyone while giving their employees huge bonuses with bailout money. And it explains why the Senate voted itself a pay raise on the same day it refused to increase the minimum wage.
"Why? Because fuck them, that's why."
Once again, this is something that can be tested in experiments, and once more the correlation goes the opposite way you'd expect.
A Dutch researcher mixed things up this time, using five different experiments to try to instill a sense of power in people using different methods, presumably to make sure it wasn't anything particular to a specific kind of role-playing that got the results.
They tried 3.5, GURPS and Shadowrun.
In one experiment, he took random subjects and had them role-play in a fictional government, so that some would have positions of power (aka prime minister) while others would be peons, like in the previous experiment. But other groups would, for instance, be asked to vividly describe a time when they held a position of power, in an effort to get them into the same mood they experienced when they were in that role. No one involved knew what the experiment was trying to uncover.
Later the subjects were given a questionnaire with gray-area moral questions (such as, is it OK to exceed the speed limit if you're late for an appointment). After just that brief period of feeling powerful, the role-playing prime ministers were more ready than the peons to say they would bend the rules if they needed to. But when asked other hypothetical questions that tested whether they thought it was OK for other people to skirt the rules, the prime ministers were harder on the rule-benders than the peons.
Nobody gives peons a break.
No matter how the researcher went about instilling the feelings of power, the results were the same: Within minutes, a feeling of power flips a switch in the brain that says, "The rules now do not apply to me. BRING ME A WHORE."
A WHORE, I SAY!
But even stranger, the people induced to feel powerless went the opposite way -- they actually were more self-critical than they'd normally be. Think about what that says about society: The people who are already powerless, as a result feel like they're less worthy to be in power and thus stay powerless.
Power Gives You a False Belief in Your Abilities
We know the powerful are risk-takers. It comes with confidence, and that feeling that you can make the world bend to your will is the key ingredient in everything from politics to military strategy to playing NFL quarterback.
But as it turns out, it works the other way, too. Put us in a position of power, and our perception of our abilities leaves all logic and reason behind.
"Hut ... hut ... ANNEX CZECHOSLOVAKIA!"
This next study happened at Stanford University. The setup was similar to the hypocrisy experiment, in that researchers got the subjects into a powerful mood by having them write about a situation where they had power over another person. Then there were two control groups: One wrote about a time they felt powerless, and another wrote nothing and probably just made doodles of dongs on their notebooks. Again, these people were assigned to the powerful and powerless groups at random. It had nothing to do with their station in life or how much power they actually had in the real world.
Then the researchers made them an offer: They could roll some dice, and if they correctly guessed their roll, they'd get cash. But they had the choice of either rolling the dice themselves or letting someone else roll for them. The choice was nonsense -- dice is not a game of skill. That's the point of dice. If there's some guy who's really good at making dice land a certain way, he'd be at a craps table now putting a casino out of business.
Dice appreciate a good blow, but it doesn't change how they roll.
Yet, while both the less-powerful and the control group gave up the responsibility 30 to 40 percent of the time, a full 100 percent of the empowered subjects chose to roll themselves. Drunk on their little scrap of completely fake power, they assumed they could control a completely random outcome better than someone else. All because a guy in a lab coat tricked them into feeling powerful.
But it doesn't end there. Another study found that people with power see the world more positively and are therefore more likely to take risks based on the pure blind faith that things always work out for them because they're awesome. If you're keeping track, this basically means that people in charge see the world as a gumdrop palace in which they have superpowers.
"Ha-ha! My god-like power has rolled yet another Yahtzee!"
Are you starting to see a theme here? It's like even minor feelings of power trick you into thinking you're a part of some other, superior species of human. So with that in mind ...
Feelings of Power Trigger a Lack of Compassion
In theory, politicians in the age of democracy should feel almost too much compassion. They spend oceans of money and time getting elected to posts that exist solely for the continued well-being of the people they serve. They hold town hall meetings to listen to their constituents, and they risk their political futures trying to pass laws for the good of their people.
And all they ask in return is the occasional blowjob.
A study in an issue of Psychological Science set out to test this idea. The method was a little different, as instead of a role-playing exercise, the researchers actually surveyed subjects about how powerful they felt in their own lives. Then they were divided into powerful and powerless based on their answers.
The subjects were then paired up, and one was told to relay an emotionally scarring event that had happened to him. The listener was hooked up to an ECG machine, and all of his stress responses were measured.
Nope, there's nothing inherently stressful about this.
The powerless people reacted the way you'd expect people would react when told a heart-wrenching tale. The powerful, on the other hand, felt nothing. Or at least, their responses couldn't be measured, whether they naturally felt no empathy or were just better at regulating their emotions.
The researchers had all of the subjects fill out a survey at the end and inquired about whether they'd like to stay in touch with the other experiment subjects after the experiment was over, to see if maybe they'd made any friends during this ordeal. The powerless subjects were into it. The powerful were not. They wanted nothing more to do with the stranger they'd just traded personal stories with.
This seems to indicate what we had always suspected -- that while politicians may pander to you by kissing your baby, they might as well be kissing a can of Beanee Weenees. The guy who stole your wallet at the laundromat will probably remember your name longer than they will.
"Shit, which one of you idiots did I take this thing from?"
Now find out why the person in charge has legitimate cause to hate you, in 5 Scientific Reasons You're a Bad Employee. And now learn why you should be fortunate they only hate you, in The 6 Most Horrific Bosses of All Time.
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