Psychology of Political Power : Does Power Corrupt or is Magnetic to the Most Corruptible?


Last week I attended a conference on ‘Political Power, Morality and Corruption’. A Socratic dialogue with fellow scholars led me back to one question that epistemologically haunts political theory and philosophy to date – Does power corrupt or is magnetic to the most corruptible? The cornerstone that this question posits on is antithetical to the idea of power duality as malefic or benefic. Instead, this problem statement is trying to explore and exact the fundamentals of political power. While the former part of the question is striving to deconstruct the soma of power itself, the latter construct of the question is focussing on the agency of an individual with political power.

Now, if you have read Frank Herbert’s Chapterhouse Dune, Missionaria Protectiva US science fiction novelist (1920 – 1986), he writes, “All governments suffer a recurring problem: Power attracts pathological personalities. It is not that power corrupts but that it is magnetic to the corruptible. Such people have a tendency to become drunk on violence, a condition to which they are quickly addicted”. Rather than saying absolute power corrupts absolutely, Herbert reveals a common metaphysical denominator: corruptibility,  that fundamentally connects all those with political power. However, his sematic interpretation gives birth to more questions than answers. Suppose we take Herbert’s argument in consideration and assume that the most corruptible are indeed attracted to power. In that case, the global political infrastructure as we know today, is then built on the building block of corruption by its very virtue. For example, the 4th edition of the Global Corruption Index (GCI 2021) covered 196 countries and territories, and provided a comprehensive overview of the state of corruption around the world based on 43 variables. This extensive data revealed that only 52 countries have a low corruption index, with Finland and Norway leading the way. On the other hand, the rest 144 countries are suffering from profane corruption. Using Herbert’s interpretation of power and corruption, should we conclude that political corruption which is about privatization of average citizen and the use of public sphere to promote private interests, is the foundational political infrastructure of these 144 countries? And if this assertion is true, does it mean that every government representative of these 144 countries are fundamentally corrupt? Herbert’s simplistic interpretation of the problem statement creates a moral conundrum of either this or that, rather than exploring the connection between the two variables – power and corruption.

Power does not corrupt. It amplifies and reveals a leader’s predispositioned traits.

For decades, social psychologists were convinced that power corrupts. One of the key demonstrations of this assertion was the classic Stanford Prison Simulation Experiment (Zimbardo, 1971), where volunteers were randomly assigned to play the role of prisoners or prison guards. As the day passed by, it was observed that the students who were given the role of prison guards became sadistic and exercised their power to subjugate prisoners by taking away their clothes and forcing them to sleep on concrete floors. This subduing was absolute barbaric and callous in nature. The results were shocking. However, the Stanford Prison Experiment failed to explore one crucial variable –  the behavioural and cognitive pattern of students who willingly participated and were recruited to be a part of ‘study of prison life’. So, Thomas Carnahan and Sam McFarland (2007) conducted an experiment on Revisiting the Stanford Prison Experiment: Could Participant Self-Selection Have Led to the Cruelty?. They wanted to studywhat kind of people participate and are drawn to the likes of Stanford Prison Experiment. The research revealed that “ volunteers for the prison study scored significantly higher on measures of the abuse-related dispositions of aggressiveness, authoritarianism, Machiavellianism, narcissism, and social dominance and lower on empathy and altruism, two qualities inversely related to aggressive abuse”.

What Carnahan and McFarland’s experiment revealed was that power doesn’t corrupt, but it is a phenomenon that is monopolized by the agency of an individual. Power amplifies and exposes cognitive and behavioral predispositions that already exists within you. It merely reveals your innate tendencies, but it does not corrupt. Let’s take another example of a democratic statesman who wants to introduce a new healthcare bill for his people, is unexpectedly confronted with an ethical conundrum – he can either strengthen his political power and wealth by collaborating with pharmaceutical giants and increase the prices of the medicines in concern (demand-supply chain) , or he can metamorphosize his proposed bill into reality and benefit his subjects. What will he do? Since he already has procured political power and is deliberating on actualizing his healthcare bill to empower people, power here has not corrupted him. In fact, the argument that power corrupts collapses because if power indeed corrupts, this democratic statesman would not have proposed a healthcare bill for the welfare of his people to begin with. However, if he decides to enact the bill in favor of pharmaceutical moguls to increase his wealth and political status quo, it would be due to his predispositioned behavioral and cognitive schema for corruptibility. How he responds to this ethical conundrum will mirror his political psyche. It has nothing to do with power being essentially corruptible. Power only amplifies and exposes a leader’s predispositioned traits. 

Friedrich Hayek makes a similar point in his chapter ‘Why the worst get on top’ in The Road to Serfdom (1943), where he highlights that individuals who rise to the top in the government are those who want to wield power and those who are most ruthless in using power. He writes, “Neither the government administration of a concentration camp nor the Ministry of Propaganda is suitable places for the exercise of humanitarian feelings. Yet, positions like these create a totalitarian state. So, when a distinguished American economist concludes that the probability of people in power disliking the possession and exercise of power is low, is similar to falsely assuming that the probability of an extremely tender-hearted person to desire a position of an whipping-master in a slave plantation is high.”

Recently, psychologists have re-investigated this phenomenon and theorised that rather than being a corrupting influence, power amplifies leaders’ innate tendencies. For example, extensive research on ‘Leader corruption depends on power and testosterone’ by Bendahan, Zehnder, Pralong and Antonaki used incentivized experimental games to manipulate leaders in power. Here, leaders had complete freedom to decide monthly pay-outs for themselves and their followers. Now, leaders could have made a prosocial decision to benefit the public good. However, they chose to abuse their power by invoking antisocial decisions, which reduced the total pay-outs of their followers but boosted the leaders’ earnings with a high margin. The researchers write, “In Study 1 (N = 478), we found that both amount of followers and discretionary choices independently predicted leader corruption. Study 2 (N = 240) examined how power and individual differences (e.g., personality, hormones) affected leader corruption over time; power interacted with endogenous testosterone in predicting corruption, which was highest when the leader power and baseline testosterone were both high. Honesty predicted initial level of leader’s antisocial decisions; however, honesty did not shield leaders from the corruptive effect of power.” 

Concluding with Caligula – The Mad Roman Emperor!

After years of witnessing the most barbaric purges, treason laws, exiles, execution, and corruption of all time during Tiberius’s rule, Caligula (37 – 41 AD) was seen as a breath of fresh air when he took the throne. After going through despondent years of constant fear, Caligula’s initiation was perceived as a hope for a flourishing Roman republic. At first, Caligula lived up to the expectations of the roman people. He brought back many people exiled by Tiberius and ceremoniously burned the records of the infamous Treason Trails held by Sejanus under the order of Tiberius. This act was celebrated and made Caligula popular and well-liked among the Senate. He then took a step further and eliminated unpopular hefty taxes, initiated constructions of harbors that created massive employment opportunities for Roman citizens, and staged lavish events like chariot races, gladiator shows, and theatre plays to entertain his people. He was indeed a breath of fresh air after Tiberius. 

But, after seven months of his rule, things changed for the worst. Caligula started to use and abuse his political powers so dauntlessly that it pushed Rome into a dark age of political and economic instability. He went on a rampage of committing murder, adultery, and acts of debauchery. His eccentricities became more murderous, including restating the very Treason Trials that he had ended. Dressed in silk robes and covered in jewels, Caligula pretended he was a god. He made it mandatory for his senators to grovel and kiss his feet and seduced their wives at lavish dinner parties. He wanted his statue to be erected in the temple at Jerusalem, which at the point, would have been highly controversial in a region that was already prone to revolt against the Romans. Luckily, Herod Agrippa, who ruled Palestine then, convinced him not to do so. Additionally, since Caligula was spending vast amount of money on his lavish lifestyle, he emptied Rome’s treasury. To reverse this damage, he started blackmailing roman leaders and senates, and confiscated their properties and wealth. 

There is no denying that there was a method to Caligula’s political madness but power didn’t corrupt him. If it did, the first initial seven months of ruling Rome after Tiberius, Roman republic would not have experienced economic, political and culture growth. However, power certainly did amplify and expose his innate characteristics of corruptibility and debauchery. Caligula’s madness of abusing political power and tyrannical reign grew out of control. An assassination plot for structured against him and he was murdered after being stabbed over 30 times by a cabal of Praetorian guards in 41 A.D. This reminds me of what Robert Caro mentioned in his book The Passage of PowerThe Years of Lyndon Johnson(2012), “Power always reveals. When a man is climbing, trying to persuade others to give him power, concealment is necessary. But, as soon as the man obtains more power, camouflage becomes less necessary.” To conclude, it is not that the power corrupts or is magnetic to the most corruptible. The truth is – power only reveals who you truly are.

Parul Verma
Parul Verma
Parul Verma is a political analyst and a human rights activist. Her work analyses transnational conflict, peace-building and peace-keeping in relation to Israel-Palestine, Northern Ireland and Kashmir. She has also written extensively on minority lynching and violence against women in India. Her work has been published in more than 20+ academic journals and international media establishments. Her part-time job involves talking gibberish to her two naughty rabbits – Whiskey and Beer! For any query or feedback, contact her at parul_edu[at]


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