Power does not turn everyone into a tyrant but, when given to those who want it most, it can inflate narcissism, according to new University of Melbourne research.
The research published in the Journal of Experimental Psychology: General found that endowing people with social power inflates the socially-toxic component of narcissism called exploitation and entitlement.
University of Melbourne Associate Professor and lead researcher Nicole Mead said power has pernicious effects when it gets into the hands of those who want it most.
“When you give people social power, they start to feel a sense of entitlement – they expect and demand respect from others. They think they can play by their own rules,” said Associate Professor Mead, who is based at the Department of Management and Marketing in the Faculty of Business and Economics.
“This can be problematic in a workplace; powerholders become willing to exploit others to get what they want.”
Associate Professor Mead and her colleagues wanted to test the theory that positions of power may corrupt because they inflate narcissism.
Since not all people misuse their position of power, the researchers focused on testosterone as an attribute that may predispose people to the corrupting influence of structural power.
The researchers recruited 206 people. They took saliva samples from each participant and told them they were joining in a team dynamics study. Each person was asked to complete tasks framed as measures of leadership abilities.
All participants were told they achieved the best leadership score but only half of participants were told they would be “boss” of a group task. This meant they could control their subordinates and the rewards associated with the group task. The other half were told they had equal control over the same task.
Narcissism was assessed using the most commonly used measure of narcissism, the Narcissistic Personality Inventory. Corruption was measured with a scale that taps into people’s willingness to misuse their power.
The study showed that people with low baseline testosterone (taken from saliva samples) do not become narcissists when put in a position of power.
However, study participants with high testosterone, when bestowed with power, showed an increase in the exploitative-entitlement component of narcissism. This increase in turn explained their willingness to misuse their power.
“This work is the first to show that social power causes people to become more narcissistic. It suggests that the destructive effects of power are not due to feelings of superiority but rather the need to be treated as special and better by others,” said Associate Professor Mead.