Letâ€™s begin with what I call the â€œCookie Monster Experiment,â€ devised to test the hypothesis that power makes people stupid and insensitive â€” or, as the scientists at the University of California at Berkeley put it, â€œdisinhibited.â€
Researchers led by the psychologist Dacher Keltner took groups of three ordinary volunteers and randomly put one of them in charge. Each trio had a half-hour to work through a boring social survey. Then a researcher came in and left a plateful of precisely five cookies. Care to guess which volunteer typically grabbed an extra cookie? The volunteer who had randomly been assigned the power role was also more likely to eat it with his mouth open, spew crumbs on partners and get cookie detritus on his face and on the table.
It reminded the researchers of powerful people they had known in real life. One of them, for instance, had attended meetings with a magazine mogul who ate raw onions and slugged vodka from the bottle, but failed to share these amuse-bouches with his guests. Another had been through an oral exam for his doctorate at which one faculty member not only picked his ear wax, but held it up to dandle lovingly in the light.
As stupid behaviors go, none of this is in a class with slamming somebody elseâ€™s Ferrari into a concrete wall. But science advances by tiny steps.
The researchers went on to theorize that getting power causes people to focus so keenly on the potential rewards, like money, sex, public acclaim or an extra chocolate-chip cookie â€” not necessarily in that order, or frankly, any order at all, but preferably all at once â€” that they become oblivious to the people around them.
I don’t know if they’re so focused on rewards that they become oblivious, or if they’ve just reached a certain level of power where they simply no longer have to bother to care what anyone thinks. A friend of mine ghostwrote a book for a famous politician once,* and tells the story of meeting with said politician in his hotel room. The person in question came to the door in his boxer shorts, which he wore through the entire meeting, never once acknowledging the fact that he was, in fact, wearing boxer shorts. Somehow my friend was of such a lower social status that the famous politician felt no need to adhere to the most basic standards of decorum — putting on a robe, say.
*adding: no, it wasn’t Bill Clinton.