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Research Shows Power Really Does Corrupt Us

In the early 1970s, a psychologist at named David Kipnis wanted to know if power really does corrupt people. So in a series of experiments, Kipnis had subjects assume the role of "manager" over a group of "employees" in a fictitious work situation. In some cases, Kipnis gave the managers very little power. In other cases, the managers had considerable power: they decided whether employees were fired, transferred, or promoted. The bosses with more power were more likely to use coercive or "strong tactics," such as criticizing employees, making demands, and displaying anger. They were more dismissive of an employees' performance, and tended to credit themselves for their employees' success. Powerful bosses were also more likely to keep a psychological distance between themselves and their employees. Kipnis concluded that having power inflates our sense of self and makes us less able to empathize with those lacking power.

In a another 2012 study, another researcher named Paul Piff had subjects play a two-person game of Monopoly in which power was intentionally skewed: one player was given a wad of cash and the use of both dice, while the other player received only half the cash and one die. Within minutes, the subjects with more cash and dice (the "high-status players") began acting noticeably different. They hogged the space at the table, made less eye contact, and took more liberties, such as moving the low-status players' game pieces for them. They also made more noise when they moved their own pieces. Everyone knew the game was rigged, and yet within a few minutes the roles crystallized and the high-status players started pushing people around and acting like they had real power and status.

The conclusion of both experiments? A little bit of power really does corrupt ordinary people, even when it's just a game.

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