How power can corrupt
There always seem to be people who,
when acceding to just a little power,
become absolutely monstrous.
We have seen it in celebrities of all
colours, political figures all along the
spectrum, lottery winners and CEOs
who pamper themselves and take
huge severance packages while heartlessly
down-sizing, forcing staff reductions
and squandering millions
while simultaneously feathering their
Recent examples are simply too numerous
How can these behaviours be explained?
Just what happens? Why do
people with a modicum of power behave
According to Dr. Robert Millman, a
researcher at Cornell University, some
of us suffer from “acquired situational
The symptoms: rage in response
to frustrations, delusions of grandeur
reaching megalomaniacal proportions
and a shrunken ability to empathize.
Those with acquired situational
narcissism are like Tinkerbell in Peter
Pan – they only feel a quickened sense
of life when other people are applauding
They act out what are normally
suppressed aspects of attention-seeking
and grandiose fantasies most of us
keep quiet or put aside as we mature
and comprehend reality.
The typical “sufferer” has likely experienced
a rapid, almost meteoric
rise in a short period of time – those
people with newly acquired wealth,
newly coined celebrities, freshly elected
political officials and those CEOs
who shine brightest in the Bay Street
Being a new CEO goes completely
to one’s head; while enjoying new
found power, they tend to surround
themselves with sycophants.
They cultivate such a huge image
that its further growth is irresistible.
And they come to believe the image to
be true and real.
This combination of wealth, fame
and power begins to subvert any critical
assessment of themselves and
leads to severely inflated ideas of their
own abilities, because all that people
around them ever do is enthusiastically
agree with them.
We have all seen celebrities who
become absolutely tyrannical when
their careers really take off and their
fawning public cries out for more perverse
details of their lives.
The next thing you know the socalled
celebrity is demanding a plush
velvet carpet outside the hotel in
which they are staying, only newblue
M&Ms on their pillows and a
cherry Coke at three in the morning in
A contemporary example is John
Edwards, a former US Senator and
John Kerry’s running mate in 2004,
who lied about his extramarital affair.
He was quoted in the New York Times
as saying, “I started believing that I
was special and became increasingly
egocentric and narcissistic.”
Testing the hypothesis that power
makes people “stupid and insensitive
and disinhibited,” psychologist Dacher
Keltner from the University of California
at Berkeley, found that the increase
of corporate and personal power fires
up the approach system (which urges
one to do) and shuts down the inhibition
system (which controls what one
does not do).
These now powerful people increasingly
focus on potential rewards
– money, sex, public acclaim – and
fail to notice the likely costs that might
make them more inhibited.
Now at the top, our person with
acquired situational narcissism who is
uninhibited and impulse-ridden begins
to act in self-destructive ways.
Their marriages are disrupted, they
make terrible parents, they begin to
indulge in substance abuse, they run
afoul of the law (shoplifting, visiting
brothels or contracting a high-end
“call girl”) and they manipulate numbers
in corporate accounts, all because
they now believe that such laws and
regulations do not apply to them.
Experts believe that there must
be a personality predisposition in order
to develop acquired situational
Perhaps their parents constantly
told them they were fantastic and now
they firmly believe it.
There is one significant developmental
flaw: the person develops a
very fragile sense of self.
In this world full of admirers, the
narcissist is distracted from the truth:
they have an egg-shell-thin sense of
And, of course, the very sad reality,
and one they tend to overlook, is that
those very people who worship you on
the way up are the very same people
who will kick you on your way down.
The prognosis for those suffering
from acquired situational narcissism
is not good.
Our society continues to be celebrity-
obsessed, and fame and fortune
are mistaken for the true measures of
happiness and success.
More and more of us will likely succumb
to acquired situational narcissism
until we all accept responsibility
for our powerful friends, and drag
them kicking and screaming back to