Saturday, June 11, 2011

Why Powerful Men Behave Badly

Power on. 
One partial explanation for all the recent bad behavior among powerful men in office is explored in NPR science correspondent Shankar Vedantam's light but interesting piece on All Things Considered yesterday. 
Vedantam interviews social Dutch psychologist Joris Lammers  who finds  activation in the brains of both men and women quickly shifts from areas associated with risk aversion (staying out of trouble) to those associated with reward seeking (getting laid) when subjects are given just a little bump up to their sense of power. 
Even more interesting, Jon Maner, at Florida State,  finds that students given a brief feeling of power were more likely to start flirting with an opposite-sex stranger sitting next to them. Add power, the flirting rises. Subtract power, it dips. "Power-holders tended to touch their subordinates more, they maintained more direct eye contact. They behaved in an overall more flirtatious manner," says Manner. Men and women both, and to the same degree.
And the more power Maner's subjects have, the more likely they are  to overestimate their own desirability and to interpret the behavior of others as flirtatious. In other words, says Vedantam, "when you say 'hello' to someone, an ordinary person thinks you said "hello." A powerful person thinks you meant 'hel-lo.'" It doesn't take a lot of power, either. "A small amount of money in a short laboratory interaction was sufficient to elicit this overestimation of sexual interest," says Maner. 


MaoClare said...

This is fascinating. But it's also interesting that, in profiles of leaders such as Bill Clinton, Eliot Spitzer, their appetites for power, intellectual challenge, food (for Clinton), and sex, predated their powerful positions... so it may also be that men with oversized appetites are those who become leaders.

The Author said...

Good point, MaoClaire! There may also be an amplification effect; these guys start out with big appetites, which--assuming talent and luck and opportunity--land them in postions of power, which reduces their risk aversion and further increases their appetites, which may lead to more power still. Eventually, though, given enough time--and little enough attention to the dangers of risky (bad) behavior--they'll get caught with their pants down either in their private or political lives.