Does Power Corrupt Everyone Equally

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In the Lord of the Flies and in the Stanford Prison Experiment, it shows how the thirst for power corrupts people. According to the psychologist, Scott Barry Kaufman, power isn’t inherently good or evil, rather it’s the person who makes it evil. In the Lord of the Flies, William Golding is arguing the same thing by putting Jack in charge. When power is put on certain people it can cause damage but when it’s put on the right person the world can flourish.

The Stanford prison experiment consists of volunteers, half being prisoners and half being prison guards that are told to act as their character. This experiment is a lesson about how when everyday people receive too much power, they can become “sadistic tyrants” (Konnikova). While this experiment is partly based on how people act based on preexisting expectations, it also tells us that power corrupts, but it doesn’t corrupt everyone equally. It is extremely unlikely that the small group of prison boys showed full signs of all human emotions. For one, these were young males. Already, there is going to be higher levels of testosterone than others. In 2007 research found that the boys who volunteered to be a part of the experiment, scored higher on tests of “aggressiveness, authoritarianism, machiavellianism, narcissism, and social dominance, and lower on measures of empathy and altruism” (Kaufman). But even among the small group of young male participants in the Stanford Prison Experiment, there was a great amount of variation in how people responded to power. Some prison guards were cruel and would physically beat the prisoners while others couldn’t stand the cruelty and offered to run errands, while still others were still kind to the prisoners. (Kaufman)

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Power isn’t inherently good or evil. As Adam Galinsky and colleagues put it, “powerful people roam in a very different psychological space than those without power.” Power increases confidence, optimism, risk-taking, sensitivity to internal thoughts and feelings, goal-directed behavior and cognition, and creativity (Galinsky). But these are not necessarily bad outcomes. Put to good use, power can have an incredibly positive effect on people. There are so many compassionate teachers, bosses, politicians, humanitarians, and others who wield power, who genuinely want to make the world a better place. The important point here is that power amplifies the person. It gives already existing personality dispositions and tendencies a louder voice, and increases the chances that these tendencies will be given fuller expression. So, we must consider interactions between the person and the situation. As Galinsky and colleagues point out, “the situation loses its suffocating hold over the thoughts and behavior of the powerful… and they are left with their own opinions, beliefs, attitudes, and personalities to drive their behavior.”

Research shows that activating the concept of power in men with an already-existing disposition toward sexual harassment or aggression increases objectification of women (Bargh). There’s also an emerging line of research on the “Dark Tetrad,” (Buckels) which consists of the darker personality dispositions of narcissism, psychopathy, machiavellianism, and everyday sadism. One study found that when given the opportunity, everyday sadists killed bugs at greater rates than nonsadists, and were more willing to work for the opportunity to hurt an innocent person. Similarly, when narcissists have their ego threatened, they are much more likely to become aggressive, even against innocent bystanders (Kaufman). No one is all good or all bad; all of us have many sides. Even people who abuse power most certainly have other, more prosocial sides that may be unexplored. We must ask ourselves which side we most want to bring out of a person. Zimbardo’s experiment shines a light on the bad, but I imagine there is an equally shocking experiment based on shining the light on the good.

Works Cited

  1. Kaufman, Scott Barry. “Does Power Corrupt Everyone Equally?” Greater Good, Scott Barry Kaufman , 3 Sept. 2015,
  2. Konnikova, Maria. “The Real Lesson of the Stanford Prison Experiment.” Google, Google, 12 June 2015,
  3. Bargh, J. A., Raymond, P., Pryor, J. B., & Strack, F. (1995). Attractiveness of the underling: An automatic power → sex association and its consequences for sexual harassment and aggression. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 68(5), 768–781.
  4. Buckels, Erin E., et al. “Behavioral Confirmation of Everyday Sadism – Erin E. Buckels, Daniel N. Jones, Delroy L. Paulhus, 2013.” SAGE Journals, Sage, 10 Sept. 2013,
  5. Galinsky, Adam D. “From Power to Action.” Interpersonal Relations and Group Prcesses, 17 Apr. 2003,

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Does Power Corrupt Everyone Equally. (2022, Feb 15). Retrieved from

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