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opinion

Sukhvinder S. Obhi is an associate professor in the department of psychology, neuroscience and behaviour at McMaster University.

Human behaviour is compelling, entertaining and sometimes dangerous.

It is also complex and notoriously difficult to predict, which makes it an ideal subject for research, which is beginning to unravel what drives us to act in the ways we do.

Allegations of harassment and sexual aggression by members of two of Canada's most esteemed institutions may be shocking to some, but they are part of a pattern that is showing up ever more frequently in our news feeds.

Given the exploits of such a variety of famous people, it's no wonder there's a pervasive folk psychology around how power affects people. We often hear how power corrupts, or how power causes people to behave in ways that are damaging to others and to powerful people themselves.

For many of us, the news stories of the past couple of weeks are unsurprising, and the folk psychology surrounding them seems to make intuitive sense. But is there any truth to it? What exactly does psychological research say about how power affects behaviour?

Ever since the classic Stanford prison experiments by Philip Zimbardo, who randomly divided subjects and assigned them to play the part of prison guards (having power) or prisoners (lacking power), we've known that even make-believe power differentials affect behaviour.

Elevating someone to the status of a prison guard seemed to cause them to harass and ultimately dehumanize individuals who had been assigned to the role of prisoner, to such an extent that Prof. Zimbardo had to call off his experiment prematurely.

Since those famous prison experiments, we've learned a lot more about how power affects social perception, cognition and behaviour.

Recent work from psychologist Amy Cuddy's lab at Harvard Business School has shown that power is associated with increases in the male sex hormone testosterone and a greater propensity for risk-taking, in the form of financial gambling.

Others, including Adam Galinsky from Columbia University, have shown that people who feel powerful actually view the world in general as a less risky place. When asked to estimate how many fatalities are caused by catastrophes such as airplane accidents or tornadoes, powerful people consistently underestimate the numbers compared to their less powerful counterparts.

In a separate study, Prof. Galinsky's team has also shown that power can lead to objectification, where power-holders tend to approach individuals they perceive to be "useful" to achieving their own goals.

Other work out of John Maner's lab at Florida State University has shown that power is linked to sexual motivation and is associated with increased expectations of sexual interest from subordinates – an interesting finding that relates directly to the kinds of sexual-harassment cases we constantly see in the news.

On top of all this, Susan Fiske at Princeton has shown that power promotes a reliance on stereotypical and categorical information, rather than specific personalized information.

Finally, in some of our own work, we've found that when powerful individuals watch someone else's behaviour, there is reduced activity in a part of the brain involved with social perception and thought to be important for empathy.

It is not surprising, then, that this combination of effects – power-related increases in testosterone, impaired risk perception, increased risk-taking, increased objectification, a tendency to stereotype, potentially decreased empathy – is a dangerous cocktail. It's easy to see how it could facilitate unsavoury exploits.

But the keyword here is "facilitate." Remember that human behaviour is determined by a multitude of personal and situational factors and that such factors differ wildly across individuals and contexts.

So power does not cause unsavoury behaviour, but it may make it more likely for particular people to act in damaging ways.

Not all people with power harass others. So while power is part of the story, it's not the whole story – a person's pre-existing psychological traits also matter. With this in mind, the folk-psychology notion that power corrupts is almost accurate, but not quite.

So does power corrupt? In short, it depends.