This article is adapted from one that originally appeared in Gehirn & Geist.

Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan achieved a stunning ascent from humble origins to the pinnacle of power. As a working-class teen, he sold sesame bread along Istanbul's waterfront and dreamed of being a professional soccer player. By age 40, though, he had become the city's mayor. Less than a decade later he was elected prime minister of Turkey. And in 2014, when he was ineligible to run for a fourth term in that office, he campaigned for and won the country's presidency.

This past January the political party Erdogan co-founded—the ruling Justice and Development Party (known as AKP)—took extraordinary steps to extend his influence even further. AKP lawmakers drafted amendments to Turkey's constitution that would eliminate the role of prime minister, make the 62-year-old president the sole executive head of state and afford him the opportunity to retain the position through 2029. A majority in the parliament backed the proposal, paving the way to a referendum on the matter on Sunday, April 16, 2017.

Critics attacked the move as a blatant and autocratic power grab. And it signaled just how bold Erdogan had become since his political start. Initially Turks trusted him, the son of a Black Sea ship captain, as “one of them.” Internationally he was seen as a reformer, who abolished the death penalty in Turkey, strengthened freedom of speech laws and made efforts to end conflict with the country's Kurdish minority.

For many, though, any favorable impressions of Erdogan began to fade as he consolidated his grip on power. In answer to charges of corruption and conspiracy that began in 2013, he imprisoned hundreds of police officers, public prosecutors, journalists and generals. In the face of protests that year and a coup attempt last summer, Erdogan's government responded with massive shows of force, using tanks, tear gas and water cannons against civilians. To stifle his opponents, he has intervened in the justice system and censored the media, blocking Twitter and calling for news blackouts.

Why did Erdogan—like so many leaders catapulted onto the world stage—seem to change from a man of the people to a tyrant by many Turks' account? Historian John Dalberg Acton would have blamed the toxic effects of power itself. At the end of the 19th century he famously wrote, “Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.” But some theorists have argued for an alternative explanation: Maybe top-ranking politicians, CEOs and others who rise quickly in their fields harbor ruthless, authoritarian tendencies to begin with—and do those very traits help them to take and wield power more easily?

President Recep Tayyip Erdogan rose from humble beginnings to become the mayor of Istanbul, then prime minister and president of Turkey. As Erdogan's influence has expanded, so have his authoritarian tendencies. Credit: Kayhan Ozer Getty Images

Recent psychological research sheds some light on this age-old question. The headiness of power can indeed make people feel justified to use and misuse it, explains social psychologist Susan T. Fiske of Princeton University. “Power allows people to act freely,” she says. Studies also show that as individuals grow in influence, they tend to lose empathy and an affinity for details. But of course, not all powerful people trend toward despotism. Scientists are discovering that how we rise to power and what we do with it when we get there varies, depending on personality, gender and a host of other factors.

The Last Cookie

You do not have to be a world leader to encounter power plays almost every day—at work, among friends, with partners and other family members. According to British philosopher and mathematician Bertrand Russell, power is to the social sciences what energy is to physics—the fundamental driving force of human behavior. In 2003 psychologist Adam D. Galinsky, now at Columbia Business School, and his colleagues explored how even slight shifts in our perception of power can dramatically change our actions.

In one experiment, they split 66 participants into two groups. They instructed half to write about an episode in which they exerted power over another person; the other half wrote about a time when someone else held power over them. Galinsky and his team used this writing exercise to “prime” the volunteers to feel either somewhat powerful or powerless. Next they brought the participants into another room to perform a task that involved allocating lottery tickets. While they worked, a fan blew directly—and annoyingly—at their face. The researchers observed that among participants primed for power, some two thirds simply pushed the unit aside. Among those made to feel “powerless,” though, fewer than a third dared to do the same.

“High- and low-power individuals inhabit and, through their own actions, create strikingly different worlds,” says social psychologist Dacher Keltner of the University of California, Berkeley, who has conducted similar investigations. When we feel powerless, he explains, our actions tend to be inhibited; we concentrate on the needs of others and are more sensitive to punishment. But as we gain influence, we become more receptive to rewards and allow ourselves more freedom. He has compared this disinhibition with acquired sociopathy, which affects some head trauma patients with damage to their frontal lobes.

This sense of freedom has far-reaching consequences. For instance, in what has come to be known as the “Cookie Monster” study, Keltner and his colleagues randomly asked one volunteer in a group of three to rate the performance of the others while they worked on a boring task, such as drafting university policies. As soon as the group looked a little restless, the scientists offered them a plate of five chocolate chip cookies. They found that when it came down to the last cookie, the raters, who perceived themselves to be in a position of greater authority, were far more likely to nab it. What is more, a hidden camera revealed that the raters also ate like the blue-furred monster from Sesame Street—mouth open, lips smacking, crumbs flying. They did not care what “subordinates” thought of them.

The Path to Power

Additional studies have extended Keltner's finding well beyond table manners: the more power people accrue, the fewer social norms they typically observe. Some people who aspire to power, though, may get ahead simply because they are willing to break with convention in the first place. That was certainly the opinion of Renaissance political philosopher Niccolò Machiavelli. Today we use the term “Machiavellian” to describe leaders who pursue their goals without regard for moral or legal limits. They focus completely on status, always look to their own advantage and use others to their own end.

Psychologists include Machiavellianism as part of the so-called dark triad of personality traits, alongside narcissism and psychopathy. Psychologist Kibeom Lee of the University of Calgary in Alberta and his colleagues have shown that people who score high in all three of these traits also tend to score low in measures of honesty and humility. These individuals will do almost anything to achieve material wealth and social dominance.

The infamous 1971 Stanford Prison Experiment attempted to re-create prison power dynamics among 24 undergraduates. Students randomly cast as “guards” quickly became abusive toward those cast as “prisoners,” and the experiment was halted. Credit: Courtesy of

But the Machiavellian path to power does not work for everyone—especially women. In 2008 Keltner and his team examined social hierarchies in an American college sorority. They found that members tended to gossip more about sisters who exerted their dominance over the group and threw their weight around. The subjects of gossip were also viewed as less likely to be competent in an office setting. In conclusion, Keltner and his team surmised that less powerful women may use the rumor mill as a kind of corrective mechanism for regulating power within their group. In fact, the young women in the study who showed greater social skills and tried to look out for the good of the entire sorority were the ones who tended to build influence over time. It is unclear to what extent this finding extends to men.

Several other studies have shown that women are more apt to be punished for dominant behavior than men are. For instance, in 2010 psychologists Tyler G. Okimoto and Victoria L. Brescoll, then both at Yale University, asked student volunteers to look at the Web sites of two fictitious senators and pick one to vote for. The descriptions were identical except that one politician was a woman and one was a man. In addition, the text sometimes mentioned that the candidate was extremely ambitious. When the profile included this extra detail, the study participants—men and women alike—were less likely to vote for the female candidate.

What seems to hold true regardless of sex is that people who rank high in extraversion and low in neuroticism—what are regarded as prosocial personality traits—tend to rise in any social group. Once there they often start to take on other characteristics. In particular, research has found that powerful people tend to overestimate their abilities, take greater risks, think in terms of stereotypes and ignore outside viewpoints more often than people who see themselves as powerless. “The skills most important to obtaining power and leading effectively,” Keltner points out, “are the very skills that deteriorate once we have power.”

Above It All

To be certain, being freed from others' opinions can help powerful people excel at big-picture thinking and bold decision making, but in sum, achieving authority appears to have a negative effect on how we think and act. By way of explanation, researchers have developed the “construal level theory,” which features at its the core the notion of psychological distance. The basic idea is that objects, people or events will seem farther away or closer to us depending not only on their spatial and temporal distance but also on our level of personal involvement with them. The theory states that we think concretely about things we perceive as close but abstractly about things that seem distant. In this framework, the higher up the corporate ladder, the more abstractly an executive thinks.

Social psychologists Pamela K. Smith, now at the University of California, San Diego, and Yaacov Trope of New York University tested this proposition in a series of experiments in 2006. In one test, they used a priming technique akin to Galinsky's writing method to rouse feelings of power or powerlessness in 123 students. Then they asked them to memorize a series of terms and then try to recognize them again a few minutes later.

It was a classic memory test with a twist: all the words in the first series (for example, drapes, frame and pane) were closely associated with a missing term offered in the second series (window). Many participants tripped up during recall and flagged the missing word as an original one. Those who had been primed for power, though, made this mistake more often. They were quicker to jump at the missing abstraction.

Many other experiments have corroborated the idea that those in power tend to think more abstractly. When leaders see their subordinates as distant, abstract beings, it renders them less likely to consider their perspectives or desires. In fact, studies show that powerful individuals often become less altruistic and less empathetic toward others—and use their pull to benefit themselves instead of those below them on the organizational chart.

In 2015 economist Samuel Bendahan of the University of Lausanne in Switzerland and his colleagues measured these changes using the so-called dictator game. They divided nearly 500 subjects into small groups, putting some participants in charge of splitting a small amount of money with their group members. These select few could then give themselves a larger share of the money and shortchange the rest—or give themselves a smaller amount and leave a larger pot for everyone else. In different rounds of testing, they were also given varying degrees of authority. In some iterations, for example, they could determine the payment made to one other group member; in others, they could set the amount doled out to three people.

Abu Ghraib prison guard Ivan Frederick was charged with abusing inmates. At his trial, experts debated if the prison environment corrupted him. Credit: David J. Phillip AP Photo

The researchers found that the more influence they gave the test subjects, the more unethical their decision making became. Among those with less discretionary power, fewer than half chose to keep more money for themselves. But that figure rose to almost 90 percent among those with greater authority in the game. The researchers also measured testosterone levels in about half of the subjects. They found that participants with high testosterone and the highest level of influence kept the most money for themselves. In fact, the hormone (and male gender) proved more important than power: men tended to disadvantage other group members far more often than women did.

Drawing the Line

Social position affects a wide range of moral judgments, as social psychologist Joris Lammers, now at the University of Cologne in Germany, and his colleagues demonstrated in a 2010 study. They, too, used priming to influence the sense of power their test subjects felt and then asked: Is it okay to take an abandoned bicycle? Cheat on your taxes? Drive over the speed limit? They asked half the participants to note how acceptable they thought these behaviors were for themselves. The others rated these acts when carried out by other people. As expected, they found that participants primed for power applied considerably less stringent criteria to their own behavior than to others. But those primed to feel powerless judged themselves and others by more or less the same standards. In some cases, these people even judged their own transgressions more severely.

Psychologist Philip Zimbardo of Stanford University has a deep appreciation of the treacherous aspects of power. He devised the infamous 1971 Stanford Prison Experiment that simulated prison power dynamics among 24 undergraduate volunteers. In his setup, a coin toss determined whether a student would act the part of a prison guard or a prisoner. As it turned out, the role-playing quickly degenerated into actual abuse, and the experiment had to be stopped. Although some researchers have since questioned the validity of Zimbardo's experiment, it remains one of the best known psychological studies ever done.

In 2004 Zimbardo was asked to testify at the trial of Abu Ghraib prison guard Ivan Frederick, who had been accused by the military court of physically and psychologically abusing inmates. In his statements, Zimbardo defended Frederick and made a case for a milder sentence. Very few people, he claimed, could have withstood the toxic atmosphere in Abu Ghraib and not been warped—much like the test subjects in his experiment. The Pentagon held that the prison's human-rights violations had been the work of a few “bad apples,” but Zimbardo saw the problem as a “bad barrel” that had corrupted good people.

Did Zimbardo wrongly minimize the personal responsibility of the perpetrators? There is no question that power disinhibits and mobilizes people. It all too often puts them into situations in which their personalities shift in unexpected ways and may bring to the fore traits that previously lay dormant. But many experiments conducted since Zimbardo's have shown that the effects of power are not automatic. No one forced Frederick to do what he did. And although many people in power will exploit their team members, many others will use their authority to act altruistically. Frederick was ultimately sentenced to eight years in prison and served just under three.

Sociologist Max Weber viewed power as a chance for men or groups “to realize their own will in communal action, even against the resistance of others.” Whether leaders use their influence for the good of their subordinates or for their own benefit depends on numerous factors—not only on the political situation or corporate culture but on the person himself or herself. Lord Acton was entirely correct that power can corrupt—and more often than not, it does—but modern research also reassures us that it does not have to.