Power `makes people corrupt, mainly when it lacks status`

Last Updated: Sep 21, 2011, 16:45 PM IST

Washington: Ever wondered why that government clerk was so rude and condescending? Individuals in roles that possess power but lack status have a tendency to engage in activities that demean others, says a new study.

Researchers from the University of Southern California, Stanford University and the Kellogg School of Management have found that the combination of some authority and little perceived status can be a toxic combination.

The study is "based on the notions that low status is threatening and aversive, and power frees people to act on their internal states and feelings".

For their study, the researchers conducted an experiment with students who were told they would be interacting with a fellow student in a business exercise and were randomly assigned to either a high-status "idea Producer" role or low status "worker" role.

Then these individuals were asked to select activities from a list of 10 for the others to perform; some of the tasks were more demeaning than others.

The experiment demonstrated that individuals in high- power/low-status roles chose more demeaning activities for their partners (eg, bark like a dog three times) than did those in any other combination of power and status roles.

"Although a lot of work has looked at these two aspects of hierarchy, it has typically looked at the isolated effects of either power or status, not both. We wanted to understand how those two aspects of hierarchy interact.

"We predicted that when people have a role that gives them power but lacks status -- and the respect that comes with that status -- then it can lead to demeaning behaviours. Put simply, it feels bad to be in a low status position and power that goes with that role gives them a way to take action on those negative feelings," lead author Nathanael Fast said.

The findings are to be published in the upcoming edition of the `Journal of Experimental Social Psychology`.

PTI