The 'cookie monster' study reveals how power corrupts people

Are unethical people more likely to ascend to positions of power? Or does power change people for the worse?

Research provides some evidence for the latter, suggesting that power makes people greedier and less socially appropriate.

In 1998, researchers conducted what they now refer to as the “Cookie Monster” study. Experimenters led participants into a lab, where they were divided into groups of three. In each group, one person was randomly appointed the leader. After the participants completed a simple exercise, an experimenter brought in a plate of five cookies.

Sure enough, the designated leader was more likely to take a second cookie. And not only that, they were also inclined to eat with their mouths open and get crumbs all over the place. Male participants were especially messy eaters.

The Cookie Monster study helps explain some important societal phenomena. In a 2003 meta-analysis that cites the yet-unpublished study, the authors write that “power disinhibits more pernicious forms of aggression as well,” including hate crimes against minority groups and rape in cultures where women are subordinated.

“When you feel powerful, you kind of lose touch with other people,” study co-author Dacher Keltner, Ph.D., says in a video produced by the University of California. “You stop attending carefully to what other people think.”

Ironically, Keltner writes, “the skills most important to obtaining power and leading effectively are the very skills that deteriorate once we have power.”

This research has meaningful implications for the workplace. Organisations might want to simply tell newly appointed managers about this research, and urge them to monitor their own tendency to turn selfish or boorish.

It’s important for leaders to be both empathetic and self-aware, and a Cookie Monster in the C-Suite could be a recipe for disaster.

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