The Minds of Powerful Sexual Predators: How Power Corrupts

Three factors that propel powerful people to outrageous behavior.

Posted Nov 03, 2017

The recent sexual assault scandals by Hollywood’s powerful producers (e.g., Weinstein) and actors (Spacey) are certainly nothing new, nor are they unique to Hollywood. Powerful politicians, business leaders, and professionals are also routinely charged with predatory sexual behavior. Why is this so common among powerful individuals? What role does power play?

1. Social Dominance. An important factor is Social Dominance—the notion that powerful, or more dominant, hierarchies develop in societies, such as men over women, Whites over people of color, rich over poor, etc. Individuals with a high Social Dominance Orientation (SDO) are more likely to believe that they are superior to persons of other groups or classes. For heterosexual men with a high SDO, women, particularly those of lower social standing, are viewed as “lesser” and are easy targets for their sexual advances (“They should be grateful that someone like me gives them attention”). It is no wonder then why powerful men use the promise of upward mobility (“I can make you famous”) to lure victims.

2. Exception-Making. A common reason why power corrupts is that powerful individuals begin to believe that the social rules and laws that govern other people (those “lower” classes) don’t apply to them because of their status and power. This is reinforced when the powerful individual can use money or influence to keep from being discovered, or to “settle” with victims. [Read more about this here].

3. Just Being Male. In an interesting series of experiments, John Antonakis and his colleagues demonstrated that as individuals in leadership roles were given greater levels of power, they became less egalitarian and more likely to take a greater share of the rewards for themselves. The only significant predictor of the amount of corruption was testosterone. This is in line with research that suggests that women, in general, behave more ethically than men. [Read more about this here].

Obviously, many powerful people resist corruption. How do they do it? One way is through humility. They understand that their social standing and power are like a gift—something to be grateful for, and not to be abused or misused.​

References

Bendahan, S., Zehnder, C., Pralong, F.P., & Antonakis, J. (2015). Leader corruption depends on power and testosterone. The Leadership Quarterly, 26, 101-122.

Price, T.L. (2008). Understanding ethical failures in leadership. Cambridge University Press.