When You’re In Charge, Power (And Testosterone) Corrupt–No Matter How Honest You Are

Total authority is a slope so slippery, it’s almost impossible not to slide down it.

When You’re In Charge, Power (And Testosterone) Corrupt–No Matter How Honest You Are
[Top photo: Anja Hild/Getty Images]

Britain’s Lord Acton famously said: “Power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely.”


Now a team of researchers in Switzerland has completed an experiment that demonstrates the intoxicating effects of power, even for leaders who initially start out being honest. And–pay attention all men in charge, everywhere–they also showed that higher testosterone levels amplified a leader’s willingness to make corrupt decisions.

It’s not easy to answer the question of why sometimes leaders make decisions to benefit themselves and not the greater public good, though researchers have tried. One problem is that it’s hard to say whether power causes a person to become corrupt or whether naturally corrupt people are more attracted to positions of power.

The team, from the University of Laussane, designed a series of experiments to disentangle these ideas. They employed a variation of the famous dictator’s game, which is often used in social psychology experiments. They first put a random group of subjects in charge of a pot of money, and gave them the choice of how to distribute the funds among themselves and their anonymous “followers.” They were given a few options: a default choice for how to divide up the pot with a small benefit to the leader, a “pro-social” choice that distributed funds evenly, and an “anti-social” choice that allocated the leader a much greater share. Some were also given a “very anti-social” choice.

The catch was that the more a leader took for himself, the more the pot “leaked” money; a leader who took the same share as his subjects maximized the overall amount of money available. “We…made it inefficient for the leader to profit,” says study author and professor of organizational behavior John Antonakis, in a video explaining the experiment.

To Antonakis, the results were clear: “Power corrupts. When given more followers or more choices, leaders were more likely to take an anti-social decision,” he says. In the most extreme example, where each “leader” had three followers and four choices for dividing up funds (pro-social, default, anti-social, and very anti-social), 80 percent of decisions went for either the anti-social or very anti-social allocation.

“Power acts like some sort of drug that blocks leaders from feeling guilty when they take an anti-social decision,” says Antonakis, who reported the findings with his collaborators in the journal, The Leadership Quarterly and created the video shown above.


A second part of the experiment looked at how individual personality and physiological differences affected measured levels of corruption. The researchers measured participants’ level of honesty and selfishness weeks before they played the dictator game and also measured their testosterone levels. In a survey beforehand, only 3% of participants thought leaders should make anti-social decisions, and 81 percent said leaders should just take the default choice.

The subjects then played the same game as the first group, but this time, they played it many times, making 15 decisions in total. “We surmised that there would be some sort of slippery slope effect with time,” says Antonakis. They were right. Just 19% of the “high-power” leaders–those who had the greatest number of followers and decision-making power–remained true to their word and never took an anti-social choice. And although those who scored high on a test for honesty were initially less corrupt, over time they slowly became more corrupt, the study found. A leader’s levels of testosterone also correlated with their willingness to make the selfish choice.

The experiment worked because there were real stakes. Some leaders walked out of the room with more money than others (about $100). To the authors, the results suggest that both the situation and the person predict corruption. But the lesson in all of this to them? We can’t necessarily trust leaders–even those who initially seem good–to keep their own authority in check. Rather, governance and checks-and-balances are needed that remove the unchecked power of the individual and the likelihood of corruption.

Says Antonakis: “Organizations should limit how much leaders can drink from the seductive chalice of power.”

About the author

Jessica Leber is a staff editor and writer for Fast Company's Co.Exist. Previously, she was a business reporter for MIT’s Technology Review and an environmental reporter at ClimateWire.