Yes, Power Corrupts, But Power Also Reveals
Why do people seem to become more selfish as they gain influence?
Posted Apr 21, 2013
Frank Lloyd Wright is often touted as the greatest architect in American history, but he is also remembered as a man corrupted by power. Before he became famous, Wright was the head draftsman for the renowned architect Louis Sullivan. Sullivan tasked him to create drawings for the Charnley Cottage, a picturesque waterfront house in Mississippi, as well as a Charnley house in Chicago. Sullivan was the designing partner, and most experts assumed that he was responsible for the buildings. In 1897, Charnley Cottage burned down. “Sullivan, who had fired Wright by this time, rebuilt it in the same character,” notes architecture expert Jay Pridmore, “suggesting that Sullivan regarded the original design as his own.”
Four decades later, in 1932, Wright wrote in his autobiography that he was responsible for the Charnley work. Critics assumed that he was only claiming responsibility for the drawings, not the designs. After another seventeen years, in 1949, Wright took credit fordesigning the house. Pridmore was suspicious: “Despite the property’s obvious Sullivanesque elements, Wright claimed that design as his own.”
Architecture professor Paul Sprague agreed: “When the cobwebs of misunderstanding are finally cleared away, the evidence confirms Louis Sullivan as the author of the Charnley house.”
Earlier in his career, before he achieved eminence, Wright was more generous in giving credit. He called Sullivan the Master, describing himself as a “good pencil in Sullivan’s hand.” According to biographers, Wright “repeatedly acknowledged the positive influence that Sullivan had on his life and architecture.” Why did Wright end up taking credit for the Charnley designs later on? How could he rob his mentor of at least partial credit?
The natural answer is that power corrupts. As people gave Wright credit for his brilliant ideas, perhaps the fame and fortune went to his head.
This may be true, but there’s a new line of thinking in psychology: power reveals. Rather than turning Frank Lloyd Wright into a credit hog, it may well be that being drunk on power simply freed him up to reveal his true colors.
To illustrate, imagine that you’re escorted to an office. You sit down, and you learn that you and a partner will need to complete ten tasks. Since your partner is running late, it’s up to you to pick five tasks for yourself. You get to delegate the other five tasks to your partner. Some of the tasks are very short. Others will require much more time. Will you act like a taker, claiming the short tasks for yourself and leaving your partner stuck with the long ones? Or will you be a giver, doing the time-consuming work and letting your partner off the hook?
It depends on where you’re sitting. In a fascinating study led by the psychologist Serena Chen, people filled out a survey to determine whether they tended to approach interactions like givers or takers. When they arrived for the study, they were ushered into either a powerful or powerless seat. The powerful seat was a chair behind an imposing desk. The powerless seat was a guest chair in front of the desk. When sitting in the powerless seat, the takers acted like givers. They pretended to be generous, volunteering for the time-consuming tasks and leaving the short tasks for their partners. In daily life, this is a strategy that takers use for impressing those above them, in the interest of gaining authority and influence.
When they were sitting in the powerful seat, the takers revealed their true colors. They grabbed the shortest tasks, sticking the givers with the lion’s share of the work.
Power frees us from the chains of conformity. As a team of psychologists led by Adam Galinsky finds, “power psychologically protects people from influence.” Because powerful people have plenty of resources, they don’t need to worry as much about the negative consequences of expressing their values. For givers, power is associated with responsibility to others. This means that power often grants givers the latitude to help others without worrying about exploitation by takers or sheer exhaustion. For takers, on the other hand, power is a license to advance their own interests.
Frank Lloyd Wright may have had taker tendencies all along, which were amplified as he gained power. Early on, these leanings were visible in his relationship with his son John, whom he refused to pay a regular salary for his work. When John asked, Wright presented him with a list of the total amount of money that John had cost him over his entire life. When John deducted a reasonable salary from a commission, Wright fired him.
As Wright gained power, he had fewer reasons to kiss up and more opportunities to kick down. He began insisting that his apprentices list him as head architect on all documents, regardless of his role. By the time he reached the pinnacle of the architectural ladder, he felt entitled to claim sole credit for collaborative work. Sprague suggests that Wright “wanted the world to believe that his first mature style did not have its origins in Sullivan’s work.”
Perhaps gaining power doesn’t cause people to act like takers. It simply creates the opportunity for people who think like takers to express themselves.
“Nothing discloses real character like the use of power,” wrote Robert Green Ingersoll, reflecting on the legacy of Abraham Lincoln. “Most people can bear adversity. But if you wish to know what a man really is, give him power.”
For more on givers, takers, and power, see Adam's new book, Give and Take: A Revolutionary Approach to Success.