What Attracts Us to Power?

Uncle Ben may have seemed like an over-zealous advice-giving old kook when he harped to Spiderman that “with great power comes great responsibility,” but now there is some science hinting at the wisdom of his words. According to a new study, people are much more attracted to power when they construe it as opportunity rather than responsibility.

Four studies manipulated the construal of power by means of a mindset priming manipulation: participants that put themselves in a high power role judged the same twelve measures either in terms of their contribution to the success or whether they are ethically responsible. This minimal manipulation influenced the attraction of power – in all four studies participants were more attracted to power when construed as opportunity than when construed as responsibility.

If power is more attractive when construed as opportunity, those who eventually seize it are more likely to be focused on opportunity. Thus Uncle Ben was wise to stress the importance of also focusing on the responsibility aspect of power (although you could question his decision to only share this wisdom with his seemingly powerless loser nephew.)

Unfortunately, there is no emphasis on responsibility the U.S. political system (I think the mantra is “with great power comes…great power”) and the increased focus on opportunity creates a destructive cycle. Because those who construe power as opportunity are more attracted to it, they are more likely to get it. They then use their power for opportunity (building a personal brand, attempting to get more power, etc.) rather than responsibility (protecting civil liberties, helping those in need, etc). The presence of powerful people focused on opportunity makes it easier for others to construe power as opportunity, and the cycle continues until the population of those in power skews towards people who are concerned with opportunity rather than responsibility. Eventually the political system is packed with self-interest. And by eventually, I mean eleven years ago.
Sassenberg, K. (2011). The attraction of social power: The influence of construing power as opportunity versus responsibility Journal of Experimental Social Psychology DOI: 10.1016/j.jesp.2011.11.008

2 Responses to What Attracts Us to Power?

  1. tempus fugit says:

    An excellent and insightful post! Is noblesse oblige compatible with plutocracy?

  2. erichorowitz says:

    In an ideal world, sure. In a world where the majority of the wealthy and powerful are wealthy and powerful because they prize personal wealth and power above everything else, probably not.

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