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Research on Power Teaches Why Blagojevich Did What he Did (...and Why he Might Get Away With It)

Posted: 08/23/10 06:37 PM ET

On December 9, 2008, Illinois Governor Rod Blagojevich was arrested on federal corruption charges. On August 17, 2010, a hung jury failed to convict him on all but one of the 24 allegations.

Why would a person so blatantly defy the law (at least from the public's overwhelmingly consistent perspective), even when he suspected he was being watched, and how is it possible he might walk?

Research my colleagues and I have conducted over the past decade sheds light on this all too common phenomenon. The powerful often egregiously overstep sacred bounds of public and private trust, only to be consistently forgiven, with their trespasses forgotten. I call this dance the "power tango," and it is driven by a unique brew of intoxication.

My colleague Joe Magee at New York University and I have analyzed the role of power across the social sciences and have concluded that it is the most prominent form of social organization. Time and again, our research has found power to be the central animating force of social life--in humans and most other species. Hierarchy is important because it establishes a division of labor and reduces conflict by creating patterns of deference. It also motivates performance through the alluring rewards that are offered to the powerful. My work with Nir Halevy of Stanford University shows that groups requiring a lot of coordination, from military units to basketball teams, fare better when their hierarchies are stable and strong.

As a result, the human mind has evolved to be incredibly sensitive to one's own place in a social hierarchy. Research has shown that although people self-enhance on almost any dimension--from intelligence to attractiveness to morality and charity--humans are remarkably accurate in their assessments of their own standing, as well as that of others. Given this sensitivity and the remarkable benefits of hierarchy, one's place in a social hierarchy captures and directs the most basic of psychological processes.

In the power tango, first consider the person leading, the one holding the power. Countless research has demonstrated that having power transforms people. Simply putting people into a position of power in the lab--by having them serve as a manager in a task or even simply having them think about a time when they had power--literally intoxicates them, turning these individuals into optimistic risk-takers where the constraints that normally govern social behavior seem to melt away.

Several years ago, Deb Gruenfeld of Stanford University, Joe Magee, and I ran studies on the transformative effects of power, which were actually modeled off of the real-life experience of Deb. She was on a plane one day in the late 1990s when a high-powered executive sat down next to her. The overhead fan was blowing on him and, rather than simply turn it off, he directed it right into Deb's face. She sat there becoming increasingly colder for more than a half hour, shivering in frustration, when she suddenly realized that she could act and turn the fan off herself. This example highlights three telling factors. First, the executive acted and Deb didn't. Second, the executive acted in a way that didn't take into account anyone else's well-being other than his own. And finally, Deb voiced no complaint against him.

Inspired by this, in one study, we brought people into the lab and randomly assigned them to be in either a high- or low-power position. We then placed each person to work in their own room where a fan had been purposely set up to blow directly onto them. Although it was unclear to participants whether they were allowed to act upon this annoying stimulus, the "powerful" were twice as likely as the "powerless" to take assertive action and either turn off, redirect, or slow down the fan.

In another study, we had participants draw the capital letter "E" on their foreheads with a marker. One way to complete the task is to draw an "E" as though the self is reading it, which leads to a backward and illegible "Ε" from the perspective of another person. The other way to approach the task is to draw the "Ε" as though another person is reading it. Powerful individuals were three times more likely to draw a self-focused "E." Experiencing power seems to almost instantly impair an individual's ability to appreciate the perspectives of others.

Other studies find that power makes people optimistic, seeing only the bright side of action, which leads them to take big risks (think Tiger Woods, Eliot Spitzer or Bernie Madoff). As a result, the powerful are more likely to cheat and break the rules, even the ones they created and imposed on others.

Power is like what Plato called the Ring of Gyges, a ring that makes its wearer physically invisible. Power makes people psychologically invisible. Liberated from the suffocating stares from others, the powerful do whatever they want. As Plato pointed out, when we are invisible there is no constraint on satisfying our basest desires.

This sense of invisibility makes the powerful feel entitled--as my work with Joris Lammers of Tilburg University demonstrates--entitled to cheat and take what they want. Remarkably this sense of entitlement turns the powerful into hypocrites. At the same time they are acting immorally, they feel entitled to espouse a strict standard of morality and self-discipline on others.

Given this tendency for immorality and hypocrisy, many wonder why the powerful aren't punished more. This brings us to the other half of the Power Tango: the followers. How O.J. Simpson, R. Kelly, Robert Blake, and now Rod Blagojevich can walk away relatively free is perplexing among the many convinced of their guilt. It's not only their wealth that buys fantastic legal representation, but something deeper. Almost all forms of influence are equally effective both up and down the hierarchy--flattery, advice, favors, etc. But punishment is the only form of influence that typically flows only in one direction. To challenge and punish the powerful goes against the very essence of our being, against our evolved sensitivity to our place in a hierarchy. Our ingrained habit is to smile, to appease, to placate, to supplicate and to accept the behavior of the powerful, especially when we stand next to them.

In the end, power is like a strong, pungent cologne. It not only intoxicates the wearer but also captures those in close proximity. This explains why juries are so often transfixed and lenient toward the powerful. And it sheds light on why those at home, far away from the cologne's siren call, are left flabbergasted as juries repeatedly let the powerful walk free.

And so the powerful and the powerless dance together, both enraptured by the smell of power even while those in the balcony scoff in scorn.