Are Power-Hungry People Inherently Corrupt?

What most drives the endless pursuit of power?

Posted May 01, 2019

Pixabay Free Photo
Source: Pixabay Free Photo

Throughout history, and particularly in the past 100 years, writers have warned of how power corrupts those who achieve it or inherit it. From the cruelest tyrants over the centuries to dictators (or would-be dictators) today, humanity is under constant threat from those grandiose individuals who would bend others—or, indeed, the entire world—to their will. 

Probably the most famous statement on this topic is that of Lord Acton, a 19th-century English historian and politician, who reflected: “Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.” And his celebrated dictum has been reiterated innumerable times since then. But what has yet to be provided is an adequate explanation of the primal motive of those individuals who relentlessly “lust” after power.

That is, what is it about certain people that makes them so exclusively devoted to achieving power, not for its own sake (as many authors have suggested), but to abusively gain control over others? For although it’s a universal human need to influence others, the craving to "lord it over them"—to manipulate, exploit, and victimize them—far transcends what’s typically appreciated as normal. This may be one of the most beguiling of existential questions, and the abundant literature on power and its corruptibility, till now, has had virtually nothing to say about it.

What Corruption Is, and What It Relates To

Perhaps the very essence of corruption is best captured by the closely linked terms dishonesty and fraud. And it’s probably no coincidence that there are so many synonyms that characterize the many complementary aspects of the much-condemned trait corrupt. So consider: covetous, greedy, grasping, and avaricious; unscrupulous, deceitful, and duplicitous; power-hungry and status-seeking; and delinquent, criminal, and villainous. And when we add in the aggressive and exploitive uses of power as they dovetail with these aversive characteristics, we end up with such ominous, even horrific, terms as megalomaniacal, dictatorial, autocratic, authoritarian, despotic, and tyrannical.

If we’re to encapsulate all these personality properties, what we wind up with as their common denominator is behavior that’s anti-social—dangerous to the welfare of others and to society generally. It is the basic lawlessness of individuals who endlessly thirst for power that puts others at risk. Because such individuals are seriously lacking in empathy, they’re unable to identify emotionally with those they harm—whether financially, physically, sexually, mentally, or emotionally. Others are viewed solely as a means toward reaching a brutally self-interested end. And with such mean-spirited motivation, they cannot but dehumanize others, regarding and treating them as objects over which to gain extreme advantage. To be sure, there’s nothing about them that deserves admiration.

On the contrary, the individuals we typically look up to are motivated by pro-social objectives. The primary drivers of their behavior relate to bettering humankind and safeguarding our planet. Making others happier makes them happier, and their humanness is best defined by their humanity. They experience deep satisfaction in serving others—vs. the power-hungry who, perversely, derive gratification from defrauding and dominating others.

How Power Corrupts Those Who Possess It

Resisting the many temptations of power can be extremely challenging, and many have fallen prey to them. Historian George H. Smith, in his “The Lust for Power” (Jan. 17, 2014), quotes fellow historian Bernard Bailyn’s The Ideological Origins of the American Revolution (1968) in observing: “Power...converts a good man in private life to a tyrant in office,” viewing such power as all-too-intoxicating in its nature for individuals not to abuse. This cynical verdict on our species may be somewhat overstated but it’s nonetheless representative of what so many authors on the subject have felt obliged to conclude.

Undoubtedly, those who attain power (whether legitimately or not) have repeatedly been depicted as:

  • woefully deficient in empathy;
  • lying whenever it suits their purposes;
  • overpowering or dominating others;
  • willing to initiate violence—or encourage others to undertake violence on their behalf;
  • punishing, or taking revenge on, those who oppose them;
  • exploiting every opportunity to obtain what they desire, regardless of how their actions might affect others;
  • getting away with things they couldn’t possibly be immune from otherwise, or paying a substantially smaller penalty if they’re caught red-handed doing something illegal or unethical;
  • intimidating and instilling fear in others; and
  • unreasonably demanding not only others’ attention but their unwavering allegiance and loyalty as well.

Even Dacher Keltner (professor of psychology, University of California, Berkeley), who views human nature much more favorably than do others writing on this skepticism-inducing topic (e.g., see his optimistic and best-selling Born to Be Good, 2009, as well as his video “We Are Built to Be Kind," 2014), notes that:

Once people assume positions of power, they’re likely to act more selfishly, impulsively, and aggressively, and they have a harder time seeing the world from other people’s points of view. This presents us with the paradox of power: [that is] the skills most important to obtaining power and leading effectively are the very skills that deteriorate once we have power.

A great deal of research has also found that power encourages individuals to act on their own whims, desires, and impulses. When researchers give people power in scientific experiments, those people are more likely to physically touch others in potentially inappropriate ways, to flirt in more direct fashion, [and] to make risky choices and gambles.

[And, perhaps most disturbing of all, there is a] wealth of evidence that having power makes people more likely to act like sociopaths. High-power individuals are more likely to interrupt others, to speak out of turn, and to fail to look at others who are speaking. They are also more likely to tease friends and colleagues in hostile, humiliating fashion (from “The Power Paradox,” December 1, 2007).

Going all the way back to ancient Greece, Aristotle wrote in his Politics, Book VI, part IV that no one should “be allowed to do just as he pleases, for where absolute freedom is allowed, there is nothing to restrain the evil which is inherent in every man.” And obviously, unbounded liberty for any of us represents a mortal threat to all of us.

But is our very nature so intrinsically corrupt that, consciously or not, we all strive for a power that would subjugate others? How true might be the words of George Mason, who wrote: “Considering the natural lust for power so inherent in man, I fear the thirst of power will prevail to oppress the people.” So what role might heredity, or our innate constitution, play in all of this? This is a question that can be addressed on several different levels.

What Fuels a Person’s Lust for Power? And Is This Drive Inherent, and Inherently Corrupt?

Philosophers, theologians, historians, psychologists, sociologists, and even economists have all weighed in on these perennial ethical issues. So is there something native to humanity that is, well, inhumane?

This section will briefly take up some of the most common motives attributed to human corruption as it applies to those driven to attain power and—by whatever means necessary—rapaciously hold onto it. These explanations include:

  • The unquenchable desire for material riches, where no fortune is big enough and the striving for more wealth and property is ceaseless. Such monetary pursuits are synonymous with greed, so it’s hardly necessary to classify such avarice separately. And the same might be said of covetousness or acquisitiveness, also frequently mentioned as a driving force for mercenary power pursuits.
  • A craving for homage, respect, reverence, adulation, and sometimes nothing less than adoration. Many who lust after power want to be held in awe, for others to defer to them (if not kneel down to them), to praise and pay tribute to them. In a word, they desperately need to feel they’re superior to others—and certainly to be acknowledged as such. These requirements are governed by an unruly ego constantly driven to get the better of others to feel that they really are better than others.
  • Closely related to the above is the motivation to dominate, to exalt themselves through exerting authority over those subordinate to them. They want others to put them on a pedestal so, from such a lofty vantage point, they can (smugly) look down upon them. And if this repugnant aspiration, and others already delineated, portray them as narcissistic—and right up to the point of sociopathy and beyond—it’s because, frankly, they are. It’s one thing to be ambitious (generally viewed as a good thing); it’s quite another to be so power-driven as to ignore or trample on the wants, rights, pride, and dignity of others.
  • Considerably more benign than the above explanations for those lusting after power is the desire to attain autonomy. Here we’re not talking about the freedom to control others but rather the freedom to determine one’s own destiny—and to do so unimpeded by the duties, obligations, and responsibilities that otherwise can make a person feel powerless. Julie Beck, writing for Atlantic’s website (March 22, 2016), summarizes a recent research study entitled: “To Have Control Over or to Be Free From Others? The Desire for Power Reflects a Need for Autonomy.”

In reporting on this scholarly investigation by three university professors (from here and abroad), Beck quotes them as concluding that such a pursuit of power allows individuals “to ignore and resist the influence of others.” And their particular goal—not really selfish but self-oriented—is not insatiable. As Beck puts it: “When they get that autonomy, they tend to stop wanting power.” That is, in such instances enough really is enough.

  • Human nature is the ultimate culprit. In other words, we’re a deeply defective species and given sufficient temptation we’re all susceptible to advantaging ourselves at the expense of others. This would at least seem to be the “absolute,” maybe inevitable, explanation. And in fact, many authors have suggested as much. But can the lust for power really be viewed as somehow instinctual, as somehow almost as basic to our sense of survival as, say, food, water, and shelter? And, moreover, is it essentially corrupt? Finn dAbuzz opines on this question: “Lusting for something guarantees the perversion of that which you seek.”

But consider the words of George H. Smith (cited earlier), who remarks that “humans have been created for togetherness, and what drives us apart is greed, lust for power, and a sense of exclusion—but those are aberrations.” Or Quora contributor Kevin Baker, who states that “those with pure souls seldom end up in positions of power.” And the likely truth of this generalization is that such people display little interest in revolving their lives around grandiose pursuits.

But my favorite quotation is one that leads directly into my final section, which endeavors—as, curiously, other writers have not—to account for the deeper psychological dynamics that cause certain individuals to develop a super-sized appetite for power. And this terse statement best suggests the futility of efforts to amass such power: “The desire for power is an attempt to fill an unfillable void” (Finn dAbuzz).

What, Psychologically, Underlies All Explanations for The Power-Hungry

In the end, none of the interpretations above is able to uncover the ultimate why that would adequately account for those who dedicate their existence not to balancing independence and achievement with loving and meaningful relationships to others, but rather to achieving—and abusing—power and its many perks and privileges. Moreover, the problem with saying that “lust for power, not money, is the root of all evil” (Finn dAbuzz, again!) is that, like so many other explanations, it doesn’t go far enough. For the ultimate question is “What’s the most elemental, deepest source for this reprehensible lust? And, moreover, is it really as universal a force as it's generally made out to be?

Needless to say, the opposite of achieving power is the painful experience of feeling powerless. And it might be said that what drives power plays more than anything else is the desperate need to fill a vacuum originating from what the individual initially felt deprived of. This is to say that people who are power-hungry seek to compensate, or over-compensate, for not earlier having received from their family the fundamental nurturing they required.

If those responsible for rearing such individuals weren’t capable of offering them the love, understanding, and support they needed to feel genuinely cared for, they were left feeling empty and unfulfilled—as though their lives possessed no inherent value or meaning. So, relationally destitute, they felt compelled to defend themselves against such a self-repudiating, despairing sense of self. Without such a defense, they’d likely suffer a lifetime of depression, an overbearing inward perception of not being good enough to warrant others’ attention or approbation.

One escape route from this impoverished sense of self (besides developing an addiction in order to regularly “cloud over” their disparaging self-regard) is to prove to the world, and themselves as well, that they did deserve what they hadn’t experienced in growing up—namely, the abiding approval, validation, and respect of their family. So what, at the bottom, motivates their pursuit of power is the quest to feel respected, if not embraced, beyond anything they’d encountered earlier. They don’t lust after the money or social status that power can provide but, at a much deeper level, the self-justification or vindication they link to such accomplishments. Yet because the child still vibrating within them is insatiable (i.e., mere symbols of having “made it” cannot heal their inner child’s psychic wounds), their lust for the palliative salve of power is also insatiable.

It’s been said that you can never get enough of what you don’t really want. So ultimately no amount of material success, reverence or respect,  or manipulative dominance over others can provide these wounded individuals with the unqualified parental love and acceptance that—unconsciously—they’ve longed for since childhood.

The “fix” for all this is hardly simple. Most of the time, it will involve working with a caring and competent mental health professional where, vicariously, what’s offered is a profound experience of corrective parenting to heal these individuals’ still-yearning inner child. But as regards a permanent societal solution for this so-serious, age-old problem, what’s paramount is so obvious that, ironically, it’s been almost entirely overlooked: namely, more enlightened, sophisticated, and tailor-made parenting.

And to detail all that’s involved in such an ambitious, far-reaching endeavor would require not simply a whole new post but, alas, a comprehensive manual of several 100 pages.

NOTE: Two earlier pieces I’ve written that relate to optimal parenting are:

“Parenting Without Punishment,” Parts 1, 2, & 3; and

“Grade Your Parents: 10 Crucial Criteria”

© 2019 Leon F. Seltzer, Ph.D.  All Rights Reserved.