Tag Archives: experiment

The Psychology of Power and Corruption

The old anecdote says that power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely. The Economist has a fascinating article describing experiments into this effect.

These experiments show that there is in fact a causal link between power and corruption. Even more interestingly, they may point to the reason for this link.

How the experiments work

The researchers used “priming” techniques to make test subjects feel either powerful or powerless.

Once primed, both high-power and low power subjects were asked to rate the morality of various situations. For example the researchers asked subjects to rate the morality of cheating on taxes or of taking an abandoned bicycle.

The results

The experiments showed a significant difference in the judgments of high-power and low power subjects:

  • High-power = Judge others more harshly than yourself
  • Low-power = Judge others more leniently and yourself more harshly

Power does indeed seem to cause people to judge themselves more leniently than others – they are moral hypocrites.

The entitlement hint

It seems that powerful people not only abuse the system, they also feel entitled to abuse it. This proved to be an important hint and the researchers did more experiments to explore this entitlement.

In these experiments the subjects were primed again, but this time entitlement was split from power:

  • High-power subjects who felt they deserved to be powerful
  • High-power subjects who felt they did not deserve the power
  • Low-power who deserved to be powerless
  • Low-power who did not deserve to be powerless

These subjects were also asked to rate moral actions of themselves and others.

Again the powerless judged others leniently and themselves harshly. This was true whether they legitimately powerless or not.

As expected, those who felt entitled to their power judged others very harshly and themselves very leniently.

The interesting result is for those who were powerful but felt the high-power position was undeserved. These subjects were lenient on others but very harsh on themselves.

This was the exact opposite of the normal result for high-power test subjects.

The reasons why

Why would undeserving powerful people be harsher on themselves than others? That is the opposite of the usual reaction to having power.

The answer to that question provides an elegant explanation for the whole set of results.

Humans evolved living in smallish groups with dominance hierarchies. In such hierarchies all of the experimental results make sense.

Powerful (dominant) members of the band can get away with bending the rules (judging themselves more leniently). They should also deal harshly with anyone lower in the hierarchy taking a chance (judging others more harshly).

Powerless group members should be submissive – they should judge others (normally more dominant) leniently and themselves harshly.

When people from low in the hierarchy find themselves temporarily in powerful positions they are in danger of attracting punishment from the true dominants.

So they act extra-submissively by judging themselves extra harshly and being extra lenient on others.

It all makes sense!

Power Balance is rubbish

I’ve been coming across Power Balance bracelets more and more often.

Power Balance Wrist Band

These bracelets use a special hologram (or sometimes quantum effects) to “restore your body’s electrical balance, promoting a free exchange of positive and negative ions and align your body’s energy pathways.”

They instantly provide: “Faster synaptic response (brain function), enhanced muscle response (in both fast and slow twitch tissues), increased stamina (better oxygen uptake and recovery), more flexibility (faster recovery) and vastly improved gravitational balance.”

All for only R495!

Sound to good to be true. It is.

The thing is that the salesmen have some really cool “tests” that illustrate the effects of the bracelet. The tests are well done and when administered by an enthusiastic salesman they are quite tempting.

Power Balance test

Double Blinds

Since hearing about this miracle product I have wanted to see the results of a double blind test.

In a double blind neither the tester nor the subject knows if the real product is used or some other fake is used. If the product really works then there should still be benefits even when the testers and subjects don’t know the product is being used.


Over the xmas holidays I was lucky enough to come across someone with the product. I immediately made myself seem geeky by enthusiastically explaining double blind tests and then conducting them.

The results were pretty predictable. You can also watch a video showing similar tests debunking the bracelets.

No effect whatsoever.

Power Balance is just an expensive placebo. Just believing that something has an effect often causes the effect! Amazing actually.

In fact, I’ve previously blogged that more expensive placebos are more effective! These are very expensive, so they must work! Right?

Breaking the spell

Now for the really interesting part. Even if it was just a placebo effect, the guy who I was testing this with really believed that there was an effect.

By illustrating that it was a fake I broke the placebo effect. So I broke his Power Balance…

Why red wine doesn’t go with seafood

One of the first things that I learned when I was a waiter in a seafood restaurant is that red wine doesn’t go with fish.

Why that was, I had no idea. It turns out that nobody else did either.

The Economist has this article detailing how some researchers were able to find the answer.

In an experiment the researchers analyzed wines tasted with seafood and found that wines with high iron content left an unpleasant taste. Generally red wines have a higher iron content and therefore don’t taste good with seafood.

In order to test the hypothesis the researchers changed the iron content in various wines and repeated the test. Sure enough iron content was strongly correlated with a foul taste.

Science is awesome. I must be honest though – I don’t mind red wine with seafood. Apparently the combination tastes very fishy and I like that taste.

Lost wallets with baby photos more likely to be returned

This article reports on an experiment investigating the impact of various photos in lost wallets.

240 wallets were distributed on the streets (in Britain). Each wallet had the same random items in it, but no cash.

The only difference was a single photo included:

  • Photo of a baby: 88% of wallets returned
  • Photo of a puppy: 53% of wallets returned
  • Photo of a family: 48% of wallets returned
  • Photo of an elderly couple: 28% of wallets returned
  • Card showing recent charity giving: 20% of wallets returned
  • Control with no extra items: 15% of wallets returned

Even in such a small experiment the baby photo obviously had a significant emotional impact on those who found the wallets.

Irrational human nature at work again.

Yearbook smiles related to lower divorce rate

The Economist has a very interesting article reporting experiments that show a relationship between smiling in a yearbook photo and divorce later in life.

The Experiment

  • The experimenters got hold of about 700 yearbook photos
  • The smiles in the photos were then rated
  • Smile ratings were then statistically compared with divorce in later life

The Results

  • Never divorced subjects had average smile ratings of 5.9
  • Divorced subjects had average smile ratings of 5.2 (a statistically significant difference)
  • Those who were least smiling were three times more likely to be divorced than those who were most smiling

It seems that statistically significant information can be gleaned from a thin “slice” of information. Smiles really do indicate personality.

Our brains appear to solve problems unconsciously

One day, back when I was a schoolboy, I got stuck with a particularly tricky programming problem. After unsuccessfully puzzling over the problem I decided to take a break and went for a walk with my family.

About an hour later, while chatting about something else entirely, I was suddenly struck by the solution – it just popped into my head. It was an excellent example of the subconscious mind ticking away at a problem.

Since then I have often wondered at how solutions seem to just pop into my mind. When trying to solve a tricky problem or brain-teaser the solution suddenly appears – but from where?

Sometimes I can follow my conscious thought process systematically arriving at a solution – but often it just pops into my consciousness.

The Economist has this fascinating article about an experiment illustrating that the subconscious mind is responsible for at least some problem solving.

Experimental subjects were faced with a brain-teaser had their brains scanned while they attempted to solve the problem.

Several seconds (up to eight) before a subject had a eureka moment his/her brain waves altered significantly.

This seems to show that the test subjects had subconsciously solved the problem several seconds before they consciously realized that they had the solution.

We are hopelessly ignorant of the workings of human consciousness. I truly hope that during my lifetime experiments such as this one will reveal this fascinating miracle.

Hands-free: not so safe after all

hands-freeThe Economist has an article outlining an experimental result that I found surprising: using a hands-free for chatting in the car significantly impairs driving ability.

What makes this surprising to me is that an earlier study had shown that chatting to a passenger in the car does not impact driving ability.

Why would chatting to someone in person be OK but chatting on a hands-free have a big impact on your reactions?

I think that this may have something to do with context. A passenger understands a break in conversation when the driver needs to concentrate on something. More experiments are needed…

Another experiment showed that listening to someone talking has no impact on driving ability – even when subjects knew they would later be tested. So the problem clearly arises when drivers must think of responses.

PS. The researchers found that having a passenger was safer because the passenger would comment on things happening on the road.