Is having power a bad thing?
Dr Jozelle Miller
February 14, 2023

Is having power a bad thing?

When we think of power, we often think of the ability to influence the behaviour of others. Powerful people know or believe that they can create change; this may be a good thing for some, and it may be bad for another. “Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.” This quotation from Lord Action may be the most famous phrase about how power changes people. But is it accurate? Does power always have a negative influence on people’s character?

According to Dr Jamie Gruman of the Psychology Today, “One of the ways power influences people is by affecting their thoughts and the way they process information”. Further research has shown that people in positions of relative power think in more abstract terms. They also process information in a simplified way, which can lead to more stereotyping and a heightened focus on central versus peripheral details of a situation. Power has also been shown to make people stricter in how they judge others and less likely to consider other people’s perspectives. Power also leads people to be more confident in their decisions and minimize the perceived impediments to their goals.

Power also alters someone’s emotional experience. People in positions of power enjoy more positive emotions and higher levels of optimism, and do so in potentially challenging situations, such as when leading discussions of controversial topics. They have also been shown to smile more, conceal sadness better than those low in power, and react less in response to stressful circumstances. People high in power have also been shown to feel less distress in the face of others’ suffering and reduce the extent to which they mirror the emotional responses of other people.

Many Social Psychologists are also of the opinion that power also changes the way people behave. In general, power leads people to feel less constrained by social conventions and more likely to violate social norms. Overall, it seems that power tends to make people more comfortable in taking action that fosters their personal goals.

Now while it may appear that power can be a bad thing, it is important to note that it is not inherently evil, and it isn’t inherently bad to seek power. Without power, you can’t accomplish anything, good or evil. Even those who want nothing more than to make the world a better place, can’t do so without exerting the influence of personal power. It’s the abuse of power and the underhanded things people do to achieve it that cause problems.

What are the possible benefits to power?

The unique habits of powerful people remain constant and can be seen as the following:

They don’t wait for a title to lead. It’s important not to confuse power with authority. The right title can give you authority, but it can’t give you power. On the other hand, you don’t need a title to be powerful. You can lead without being a boss and you can have a powerful influence upon your workplace and community without a title.

They’re graciously disruptive. Powerful people are never satisfied with the status quo. They’re the ones who constantly ask, “What if?” and “Why not?” They’re not afraid to challenge conventional wisdom, and they don’t disrupt things for the sake of being disruptive; they do so to make things better.

They think for themselves. Powerful people aren’t buffeted by the latest trend or by public opinion. They form their opinions carefully, based on the facts. They’re more than willing to change their mind when the facts support it, but they aren’t influenced by what other people think, only by what they know. We will continue next time to look at the possible benefits to power.