The rich and powerful, we've all heard, are different from the rest of us. And that's not simply because they spend more time swilling champagne on yachts (very few of them do, actually). It's because power changes you--and not for the better.

From our first encounters with Cruella de Vil and Scrooge McDuck in childhood to the latest episode of House of Cards, we get the message that power corrupts. But does science support pop culture on this one? What does research tell us about if and how those at the pinnacle of society think differently than everyday folks?

Does power really corrupt?

Just based on this election season alone, there's plenty of anecdotal evidence that power and bad behavior often go together. But according to science, the old adage that "absolute power corrupts absolutely" actually doesn't accurately describe the relationship between high status and low conduct.

According to recent studies, power doesn't make you nastier, it just makes you more true to who you really were all along. (And also, according to another line of research, more oblivious--rich people are consistently found to pay less attention to others and their problems.)

So money and fame don't make people jerks, exactly. They just free people to be the jerks (or saints) they always were on the inside. Yale professor Michael W. Kraus explained his research into this phenomenon recently on Quartz:

The biggest implication of this sort of study is that having power allows people to freely express themselves in situations where others might more carefully consider how their behavior impacts, or even harms, others. This is fine if you have a leader who is inherently honest, caring, and compassionate. But it's bad news if you happen to have a leader who's naturally selfish, quick-tempered, or morally bankrupt.

Power as amplifier

What's another way to express the change that occurs in people's thinking as they climb to the top of the social hierarchy? You could also say that they gain greater confidence in their own rightness. That's how Geoff Durso, one of the authors of yet another recent study on the subject, describes the process.

Power doesn't change your thinking, he says, so much as it amplifies it--if you're going to be kind, you're going to be really kind. If you're going to be aggressive, you're going to be really aggressive. Those with power are simply more confident that their thoughts are right.

The weird thing is that this even extends to indecision, according to Durso's research. When powerful people are unsure, they're also really unsure and take more time to make decisions than those who feel less powerful.

"Powerful people feel more confident than others in their own thoughts, they think their thoughts are more useful and more true. But that can be a problem if your thought is that you're not really sure of the best way to proceed," Durso notes.

So does power corrupt? That's one way of describing things, but it's probably more accurate, scientifically speaking, to say power strengthens and amplifies your interior focus. Being on the top of the heap makes you more focused on yourself, more authentic, and more confident in your own thoughts.

The powerful really are different from us then, just not in the simple way many of us learned from cartoons.

Published on: Nov 3, 2016
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