Does Power Corrupt?


Considering the major story of the day, Illinois Gov. Blagojevich’s “political corruption crime spree,” this new study in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology is worth paying attention to.

Strike one against the idea that “Washington insiders” are corrupted by power and can no longer think independently.

Rather, new research based on experiments with college students who were primed to feel powerful suggests that, at least in some cases, power tends to shield people from outside opinions, leaving them to rely more on their own insights. While the study is not a knock-out blow to the long-held assumption that power corrupts, it does indicate the reality is more nuanced.

Essentially, “power protects,” insulating the powerful from different opinions, leaving them to rely on themselves, their ideals, and their personality. President Richard Nixon’s closed circle led him to embrace illegal actions that reflected his resentments and paranoia. Gov. Blagojevich’s clearly was a jerk (my opinion only, and maybe yours), and given the power of Governor, acted the way that his criminal complaint alleges.

The researchers suggest that those who have positive ideals can be empowered by the the insulation of power:

“Although power is often thought of as a pernicious force that corrupts people who possess it,” said lead researcher Adam Galinsky of the Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University in Illinois, “it is the protection from situational influence that helps powerful individuals surmount social obstacles and express the seemingly unpopular ideas of today that transform into the ideals of tomorrow.”

Here’s another suggestion: allow multiple channels of communications, enabled by the Internet, to reach the powerful. Transparency and openness can ensure that the powerful are not insulated from outside opinion. Accountability is unavoidable when everyone’s voice is made equal and open.

Luckily for us, the Obama-Biden Transition team appear to be taking the notion of transparency and open communications to heart. In their health care discussion (dissected brilliantly by Sunlight’s Greg Elin) and the Your Seat At The Table feature offer unprecedented two way communications and transparency for executive branch decisions.