Power, corruption and testosterone

2014

Why are powerful leaders so often corrupt? What is it about power that appears to attract those who abuse it for personal gain? Is it power itself that corrupts or do the personality profiles of those involved in corruption and greed also factor in?

These questions have teased and taunted researchers for years. Now a new study from the University of Lausanne has revealed that power does indeed corrupt - and that even previously honest individuals will succumb to its allure.

John Antonakis, Professor of organizational behaviour at the University of Lausanne, together with colleagues Samuel Bendahan and Christian Zehnder from the Faculty of Business and Economics and neuroendocrinologist, François Pralong, from the University’s Service of Endocrinology, Diabetology and Metabolism, put over 700 participants through two incentivized experimental games to observe the extent to which leaders behave in an antisocial manner and are willing to violate social norms to profit themselves.

Some participants received more and others less power. Power was manipulated in terms of number of followers a leader had as well as what discretionary choices the leader had with respect to allocation of payouts to himself or herself and followers.

The rules of the game were simple. Each leader had a pot of real money available to distribute to their team. With the ‘default’ option, leaders received slightly more than their followers. However, if they wanted to, leaders could take less and increase their team members' payout. Or the leader could be more selfish, reducing the payment to their followers in order to put more money in their own pockets.

In some variants of the game, leaders could take a very anti-social decision and reduce team members’ payouts even more. But these decisions had an economic cost because the losses incurred by team members were always higher than any gains that could be made by leaders.

The results, published in the journal The Leadership Quarterly, were unequivocal. With increasing power, leaders were inclined to look out for their own self-interest at the expense of those for whom they were responsible.

“Power is to leaders what blood is to vampires” said John Antonakis: “Once they get a taste of it they can’t let go”.

So the old saying by Lord Acton is true. Power corrupts. What’s more, it is almost ‘addictive’, that is, individuals morally deteriorate as they slide down its slippery slope. And while honesty predicted initial levels of leader antisocial decisions, it did not shield leaders from the corruptive effect of power over time.

“Even those who have honest and socially-acceptable attitudes at the moment of their accession to a position of leadership rather easily changed their moral perspectives once they got a taste of power,” Antonakis said.

But that isn’t all. The researchers also measured the participant’s baseline levels of testosterone, which other studies show predicts antisocial behaviour and self-centeredness, as well as lower capacity for empathy.

They found that leaders were more corrupt when they had lots of power and high testosterone levels. It is therefore possible to predict the behaviour of a leader taking into account these two factors interact.

“High testosterone individuals will be ‘tuned-off’ from feeling the emotional impact their decisions will have on others and will tend to focus on maximizing their payoffs,” Antonakis said.

“The implications of this study are far reaching,” he added. “Corruption depends on power. But it depends on the person too. Individuals responsible for organizational governance mechanisms need to pause and think about how much power and discretionary choices leaders should have. At the very least, organizations should limit how much leaders can drink from the seductive chalice of power.”

Leader corruption depends on power and testosterone, Samuel Bendahan, Christian Zehnder, François P. Pralong and John Antonakis, The Leadership Quarterly (2014)