Power corrupts, or so they say. But it doesn't corrupt everyone. Not all bosses are bullies. What is it about some people in power that leads them to turn nasty? The psychologists Nathanael Fast and Serena Chen have performed four new studies testing one possible answer and the popular and scientific press have fallen over each other to report on the findings.
New Scientist wrote on Twitter: "It's official: Your bullying boss really is an idiot". But the truth of the research is more nuanced. Fast and Chen actually showed that it is self-perceived incompetence, not actual incompetence, that can provoke a person in power to abuse their authority.
The basis for the new research was the idea that people who are in a position of power, but who believe they are incompetent, are likely to feel threatened. Cornered managers, like trapped animals, lash out.
The logic may be sound, but the evidence presented is preliminary. Fast and Chen spent no time undercover in high-octane office environments waiting to interview managers post temper tantrum.
However, in an initial survey of ninety participants, they did find particularly high rates of self-reported aggression in workers who claimed to be in positions of power and who also described themselves as chronic worriers of what other people thought of them.
A second study with 98 participants further showed that those who were primed to think about a time they'd been in a position of power, and to think about a time they'd felt incompetent, then went on to choose a particularly loud noise for students to be blasted by when answering incorrectly in a hypothetical quiz.
Importantly, these first two studies showed power was only linked to increased aggression when paired with feelings, prompted or otherwise, of incompetence. Next, Fast and Chen tested a possible aggression cure hinted at by these initial findings.
The researchers placed 59 students in a position of power over another imaginary student, who they were told would be performing intelligence tests for prizes. This time, consistent with the earlier findings, the student participants who perceived themselves as lacking in influence, and who were also given fake, "average" feedback on a leadership questionnaire, subsequently showed increased aggression - that is, they were particularly likely to choose an extra difficult intelligence test for the imaginary student. But crucially, this tendency toward raised aggression among the self-declared low influence students was eradicated if they were given excellent feedback on that fixed leadership questionnaire. A little ego massage can help calm the bullying boss.
A final, toying study that drove participants' minds one way and then the other, showed a similar pattern. Participants in real-life positions of power, who wrote about a time they'd been incompetent, subsequently described themselves as highly aggressive, but not if they'd also completed a self-affirming writing task about a value of personal importance to them (thus restoring their threatened ego to safety).
"Power holders who do not feel personally competent are more likely than those who feel competent to lash out against other people," Fast and Chen concluded. "Additionally, the finding that self-worth boosts assuage the aggressive tendencies of such power holders implies the effectiveness of a strategy commonly employed by underlings: excessive flattery."
Fast NJ, & Chen S (2009). When the Boss Feels Inadequate: Power, Incompetence, and Aggression. Psychological science : a journal of the American Psychological Society / APS PMID: 19818043
Post written by Christian Jarrett (@psych_writer) for the BPS Research Digest.