What if…and “Power, Status, and Corruption”

As described in a recent article on io9.com, researchers at USC, Stanford, and the Kellogg School of Management believe that Lord Acton was wrong when he said, “All power tends to corrupt and absolute power corrupts absolutely.” Instead, the researchers believe that people who are given some authority but without the corresponding rank or status are more likely to abuse their power than someone who is given both authority and status. The researchers contend that when a person is in a position that lacks rank or status, that person feels belittled, angry, and even fearful. When that person is given some power over others, he is likely to use that power to act out on those feelings in a negative way.

To test the theory, volunteer subjects were divided into two groups. Half were called “Idea Producers” (a high-status title), while the other half were called “Workers” (a low-status title). Both groups used a list of tasks to assign jobs to others. The researchers found that Workers more often chose the demeaning tasks like “bark like a dog.”

The researchers concluded that power alone does not corrupt, but power in the context of lack of status (and respect for said status) leads people to act badly towards others. One has only to recall a recent interaction with DMV clerks, middle managers, or senior associates to echo the researchers’ theory. But as io9 points out, this theory might also explain how low-ranking guards might end up mistreating prisoners.

So how does this theory play out in fiction? I’m sure we’re all familiar with the by-the-book squad leader or the pompous house prefect. Often our hero struggles against their abuse. But what if our fictional hero is put in a position of some authority? Does our hero continue to rise to power smoothly and quickly? Does he possess people skills in addition to his physical/mental/magical skills?

What if our hero struggles with his new authority? What if our hero’s former friends and equals now view him as “the man” while his superiors still look down him? What if that causes our hero to act out and treat his former equals harshly? What if our hero becomes a bully? What if our hero becomes what he hated? Does our hero eventually become a villain, or does he recover over time?

What do you think of the dynamics of power, status, and corruption? Have you tried to incorporate these ideas into your fiction? Have you questioned a protagonist’s rise to power when his vanity disappears the moment someone pins a star on his shoulder? Let me know what you think.