With the beatific cloud surrounding Obama’s win rapidly fading, one question finding its way into the public ear is whether or not the president-elect’s newly-won power might/could/will degrade the integrity he’s shown throughout his career. The idea certainly has precedent, with big names like Duke Cunningham and Ted Stevens offering textbook cases of Washington insiders squeezing every last drop of abuse from their power.
But does power really lead to a change in personal perspective and morality? Not necessarily, according to a study in the December issue of the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. The researchers, led by Adam Galinsky of Northwestern’s Kellogg School of Management, found that “power tends to shield people from outside opinions, leaving them to rely more on their own insights”—which, when the leader is legitimately insightful, is a positive result.
The team based its findings on college students who’d been primed to feel either powerful or powerless, through techniques like completing sentences that included “power” words, such as “authority,” “executive” and “control,” or words unrelated to power, such as “automobile” and “envelope.” Each group was then given creative tasks, such as coming up with product names or drawing hypothetical aliens. In most cases, participants were shown examples beforehand. Those who had been “primed for power” presented “more unique ideas that bore no resemblance to examples given.”
All of which is well and good. But does it translate to presidential politics?
Yes, says Galinsky, who maintains that Obama’s newfound power will, rather than make him susceptible to negative influence, give him the protection he needs to effect the change he preaches:
“Although power is often thought of as a pernicious force that corrupts people who possess it,” said lead researcher Adam Galinsky of the Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University in Illinois, “it is the protection from situational influence that helps powerful individuals surmount social obstacles and express the seemingly unpopular ideas of today that transform into the ideals of tomorrow.”
Which very well may be true—the only problem is separating the truly “powerful” individuals from the “predisposed to greed, dishonesty, and corruption” individuals during the electoral process. Or figuring out how one turn into the other.