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Ideas | Matthew Hutson

Sudden power is a scourge — and not just in politics

Pep Boatella

Donald Trump, as you might have heard, was caught on tape in 2005 saying some ugly things about women. Soon afterward, several women came forward to say that he’d enacted some of that “locker room talk” upon them. The accusations prompted a flood of fervent commentary — about gender relations and sexual harassment, and more generally about the kind of power that a celebrity, or a potential president, wields over other people.

Scientists have been studying power for years and have uncovered the ways it changes how we think. And while we often repeat that old saw that “power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely,” some intriguing new research indicates that it’s not absolute power but newfound power that unleashes manipulative behavior.


The new research began with an inquiry into sexual harassment. Melissa Williams, a psychologist at the Goizueta Business School at Emory University, sees such harassment as an abuse of power and wanted to explore the link between power and sexual aggression. “We know that bosses are the ones who do it,” she says, but they didn’t know why only some bosses turn lecherous.

To answer that question, Williams, Deborah Gruenfeld of Stanford University, and Lucia Guillory, now at a startup called Patreon, asked people about power in their daily lives and also took steps that made some people feel more powerful than others. But power, it turns out, has different effects in different situations. The researchers quickly saw an unexpected interaction between “chronic” power — that is, the level of power people feel they exert every day — and the moments of “acute” power they perceive at certain times.

Some people have argued that those with a lot of power are most abusive, and others have argued that it’s the powerless who lash out. Williams and her collaborators found truth in both conclusions: It’s those who feel chronically powerless but are suddenly given power who sexually aggress. Five experiments exploring this phenomenon will soon be published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology.


Research like this has implications well beyond a presidential election in which a TV-star-turned-presidential-candidate is accused of sexual misbehavior. Sudden power influences leaders in ways that ultimately affect everyone. It’s a factor in workplaces from the White House to White Castle, and in situations from Abu Ghraib to the Cuban Missile Crisis.

Sometimes we talk about sexism as if it’s a fixed trait; some men will always act that way, and others won’t. But certain situations bring out more sexism than others. In one of the forthcoming studies, 214 straight American men described their daily experiences of power, rating their agreement with statements such as “I can get others to listen to what I say.” Then, to induce a momentary feeling of power, half were asked to write about a time they had power over someone; the others just wrote about a trip to the grocery store. Afterward, they all read a story about a promiscuous woman named Kate who parties with them at a club and shares a cab home but doesn’t come inside. Finally, as a measure of “hostile sexism,” they rated statements such as “Kate tries to gain power by getting control over men.” The researchers found that, for men who felt little power in their everyday lives, acute power increased hostile sexism. For men with high chronic power, there was no such effect.

A second study, using college students, concluded that placing men in leadership roles increased the hostile sexism they exhibited, but, once again, only among those with low chronic power.

For the third study, the researchers looked at both men and women, gay and straight. Subjects read 10 scenarios that put them in a position of power and answered a question for each, such as, “Would you offer her the job in exchange for sexual favors?” (The pronouns changed according to participants’ sexual orientations.) Some had also been asked to recall an experience of power, and those who could not were considered to have low chronic power. These subjects were more likely than the others to say they’d perform the harassing behaviors in the scenarios. And while men were generally more likely to harass than women, the effect of low chronic power was equally strong for both genders.

Another study replicated the third but with more common behaviors and also looked at the potential for sabotaging underlings. American adults imagined having an unrequited crush on either a subordinate or a peer at work. Subjects were asked to rate the likelihood of their performing unwelcome behaviors, from asking for a phone number to long hugs to “I will squeeze Matt’s butt when he walks by.” Then they imagined that another manager wants to hire the person and asks for their opinion, and they rated several undermining behaviors, such as “I will give Melanie a poor recommendation so she will have to stay.” People with low chronic power who had control over a subordinate were more likely than other participants to endorse both harassment and sabotage.


Finally, the researchers looked at the motives of sexual harassers. Straight male subjects rated their level of chronic power, their desire for more power (items included “I don’t have as much power as I deserve”), and their cynicism (“If you don’t watch yourself, people will take advantage of you”). The researchers found that among men with low chronic power, but not among other men, playing the powerful role increased harassing texts — actual not hypothetical harassment this time. Further, this behavior was explained partially by a higher desire for power and partially by greater cynicism.

Power plays by the insecure turn up elsewhere in life. Nathanael Fast, a psychologist at the USC Marshall School of Business, and his collaborators have studied the toxic mixture of high power with low status or competence. Among high-level professionals, worrying about one’s competence (“I am frequently afraid of other people noting my shortcomings”) correlated with aggression (“Given enough provocation, I may hit another person”). And in the wake of the revelations of abuse at Abu Ghraib, Fast gave students power over a partner and found that when the students were denied respect, they were more likely to assign their partners demeaning behaviors such as barking like a dog or repeating, “I am filthy.”


Others see these new findings as complementing studies on sexual violence. Such violence correlates not with high or low self-esteem but with unstable self-esteem, says Neil Malamuth, a psychologist at the University of California, Los Angeles. In interviews, many rapists say that they committed their crimes in response to blows to their egos, and that in dominating women they hoped to regain a sense of superiority. “It may be that you actually objectively have power, but you need to keep proving it to yourself,” Malamuth says.

Researchers point toward several ways to avoid abuses of power. One obvious step is to enforce accountability, so that a leader must at least explain his or her decisions to others. Another is to encourage an organizational culture of cooperation rather than zero-sum competition. Yet another is to make sure to select a leader who’s right for the job. Power allows one to pursue one’s goals more effectively, and merely feeling powerful increases one’s tendency to act on one’s aims. People who exhibit cynicism and a strong desire for power tend to have self-focused goals, Williams says. And in an article in the Journal of Management, she cites dozens of studies showing that people who are self-focused due to personality, values, or cultural background tend to abuse power, whereas those who are focused on the needs of others tend to use it responsibly.

Indeed, her paper on sexual aggression also identifies evidence of the responsible use of power. Among those with high chronic power, not only did acute power not increase hostile sexism, it actually reduced it. “That was particularly surprising and interesting to me,” Williams says. “The idea that power can make people be better as well as worse, depending on who they were initially.”

The authors offer a couple of potential explanations. First, those more secure in their power might assume other romantic opportunities will arise in the future. Second, those not preoccupied with their own lack of influence might see power as a responsibility rather than an opportunity, a social duty rather than a personal reward. “That’s when you respond to power by saying, ‘Oh yes, I need to step up and do the right thing,’ ” Williams says.


While the paper she coauthored focused on sexual aggression, Williams suspects the results would apply to other types of relational or physical aggression, including insulting others, stealing credit, or withholding information. Abuses of power in the management literature range from hoarding resources to instigating nuclear war.

Joe Magee, a psychologist at the New York University Stern School of Business who studies power (and called Williams’s paper “super well written” and “super well designed”), and Carrie Langer, a psychologist at California Polytechnic State University, San Luis Obispo, found that when subjects role-played President Kennedy in the Cuban Missile Crisis, those who exhibited the most desire to control or impress others for their own benefit were also the most likely to escalate the conflict, and the least likely to deliberate.

Short of role-playing the Cuban Missile Crisis, how does one diagnose a potential leader’s selfishness? “It’s not the case that we should be suspicious of anyone who wants to be a leader,” Williams says, “but we want to think about why they want that job.” Someone might not admit to being a narcissist craving power during an interview, but we can look for “I” words. Does the person feel like it’s “my” turn, or instead that “we” as a group could benefit from a leader with experience?

One question Williams’s research raises is whether we should avoid giving power to the powerless, and thwart social mobility for fear of predatory parvenus. But chronic power was a subjective measure, indicating how powerful people felt. Combining the five studies, chronic power was not associated with gender, age, sexual orientation, or ethnicity — and in only two was it linked to employment or years of education. What matters is character, not demographics.

In the future, Williams hopes to extend her work to Internet trolls, a group defined by their abusive behavior. She speculates that surfing the Web can be acutely empowering. “It’s anonymous and gives you the chance to speak directly to some public figure in a way that was never possible in the past,” she says. “Now we can comment directly on a Tweet or a blog post or a picture.” She wants to know who is most likely to spew hate over smileys. “Is it the powerless, who are feeling, ‘Now is my chance to aggress against something I don’t like’?”

Which brings us back to Trump. If he were to reach the White House, how would his newfound power affect him? Would the stateliness of the presidency somehow reform him? Or would he see an opportunity to do as he pleases with others — and perhaps the imperative to do so, as proof of his potency? These new findings about how people act when they gain power offers both guidance on how to make our leaders behave better and reminders of the stakes when we pick them.

Matthew Hutson is a science writer and the author of “The 7 Laws of Magical Thinking.”