Power DOES corrupt even the honest: study

power corrupts

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Of feeling of power, cocaine, arrogance and impatience

Historian Baron John Acton famously declared that ‘power tends to corrupt and absolute power corrupts absolutely.’

Now, more than a century after Acton’s accusation, scientists have shown that even the most noble lose sight of their values when handed the right to govern.

A series of experiments found that once honest people had tasted power, they couldn’t resist rewarding themselves at the expense of others.

After undergoing psychological testing to measure individual differences, including honesty, the volunteers played the ‘dictator game’.

In the game, they were given complete control over deciding pay outs to themselves and their followers.

The leaders had the choice of making pro or anti-social decisions – the latter resulting in awarding less money to the group but more to the leader’s own earnings.

The findings showed those rated as less honest at first exhibited more corrupt behaviour.

But, over time, even those who initially scored high on honesty scales were not shielded from the corruptive effects of power.


  • The feeling of power has been found to have a similar effect on the brain to cocaine.
  • It increases the levels of testosterone and its by-product 3-androstanediol in both men and women.
  • This in turn leads to raised levels of dopamine, the brain’s reward system called the nucleus accumbens, which can be very addictive.
  • Like cocaine, scientists now believe power can lead to too much dopamine causing more negative effects such as arrogance and impatience.

See also: Pakistan is less corrupt than last year. This is good news. What’s the bad news?

‘One thing that angers me, my children and most people across the world is why do powerful leaders not do more good?’ said Professor John Antonakis from the University of Lausanne, Switzerland.

‘Is it because of power? Do we really have to worry about this force? Is what Acton said really true?

‘Corrupt individuals exhibit moral deterioration by using their power to benefit themselves and, by doing so, cause harm to the greater good.

‘Powerful individuals are able to impose their decisions and preferences on weaker individuals.’

In the study, the leader was given a pot of money and allowed to divide it how they liked. The more they took out for themselves, the less was left for their followers.

See also: Fighting corruption won’t end poverty; a capable state will

‘The results were clear. Power corrupts. When given more followers and more choices, the leader was more likely to make an anti social decision,’ Professor Antonakis said.

‘In a way, power is to leaders what taste is to vampires. Once they get a taste of it, they cannot let go. The more followers they had, the more corrupt they became.’

The participants were also given saliva tests which showed anti-social decisions were highest among those with the highest levels of testosterone, the male sex hormone.

‘What we observed was real corruption using real stakes. For instance, some participants walked out of the lab with about $100 in payouts,’ Professor Antonakis said.

‘They knew if they profited they would harm the public good.’

‘We think strong governance mechanisms and strong institutions are the key to keeping leaders in check,’ he added.

‘Organisations should limit how much leaders can drink from the seductive chalice of power.’

 Courtesy: The Mail, UK

See also:

China’s biggest political takedown in 30 years on ex-security chief

South Asia world’s most corrupt region: TI

Messed-up Pakistan Series – No 1 crime: Claims

Messed-up Pakistan Series – Curse 3: monopoly

Pakistan’s two value crimes no one talks about

Raising a moral child

UK school putting character formation before exam results by using 3 Rs

Why Tehreek-e-Adl? 1/6


  1. It all depends on how you reach to power corridor. If it is through hard work and perseverance, chances are, you will be using power more wisely. When you reach to the top by unfair means, then you are not alone . There are people who help you get there. These people definitely have lot of unrealistic expectations and you will be compelled to do some things that you may not like. Zardari’s 5 yrs of reconciliations and appeasements are just perfect examples.

          1. Can you give one example of such utopia Islamic leader ever? I know from my little knowledge of Islam and its history that it was and is never an utopian society and was never and is not deviod of corruption including moral ones. I stand to be corrected.

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