Power, narcissism and character
The old saying “power corrupts; absolute power corrupts absolutely,” coined by the 19th-century British politician Lord Acton means that as a person’s power increases, their moral sense diminishes. In fact, power seems to induce us to lose the valuable skills that helped people gain power to begin with. But why is that? Dacher Keltner writes about the absurdity of power in his popular book, The Power Paradox: How We Gain and Lose Influence. A psychology professor at UC Berkeley, Keltner says, “Power, the feeling of influence of others, shuts down the empathy regions of the brain, thereby unleashing our more selfish tendencies, quickly followed by all kinds of nasty behaviors.” Remember the infamous 1971 Stanford Prison Experiment, which had to be terminated when one group of students arbitrarily assigned to serve as “prison guards” over another group began to abuse their wards?
From nice to mean
Research has shown that powerful people act recklessly and grab more than their fair share, which runs contrary to what true power is all about – empathy, modesty and helping others. We can see this everywhere today, from lying, bullying and unethical behavior to racial and sexual violence. It’s become flagrant and outrageous and perhaps even expected. Take a close look at today’s powerful people in politics and business, for example. When asked what former CEOs miss the most after retiring, the majority responded, “it’s the sucking up to me,” according to Keltner.
It’s human nature to gravitate to people in power and pay little attention to individuals with little or no power. It’s the people in power who garner the headlines, whether they be actors, pop stars, influencers, celebrities or professional athletes. Even former President Clinton is said to have complained that people don’t let him win at golf anymore. The vast majority of them seem to struggle to find the limelight again once attention has focused elsewhere. But this seduction of power is something that we, for the most part, witness from afar. Where it gets up close and personal for most of us is narcissism.
Narcissism on the rise
“Research has found that narcissism inversely correlates to empathy. The higher the score on the scale of narcissism, the lower the empathy exhibited.” And narcissism is on the rise, according to Psychological studies in behavioral trends. “Approximately 70 percent of students today score higher on narcissist scales than 30 years ago.” Again, horrible and frightening statistics. Perhaps one of the most striking traits of narcissists is a fundamental lack of empathy, according to Dr. Les Carter. In his book, “Enough of You, Let’s Talk About Me,” Carter says narcissistic individuals “do not consider the pain they inflict on others; nor do they give any credence to others’ perceptions.” Put simply, they lack what used to be called “character!”
What is character?
Our modern term comes from the Greek kharakter for “engraved mark, symbol or imprint on the soul” and “instrument for marking.” Among the numerous definitions I found, I think this one sums it up best: “Character manifests itself as the autonomy to make ethical decisions always on behalf of the greater good and the discipline to abide by that standard.” Many factors influence the development of character. Our character starts to get molded from birth onward. It’s shaped by our parents, education, religion and even life-changing events. Probably the single greatest influence though is the one we have the most power over – how we respond to circumstances! For example, a person’s character can be shaped by the need to become a leader during a crisis, which offers a great test of a person’s mental and physical abilities.
Self-sacrifice yields to self-realization
Cultural historian Warren Sussman, who has researched the rise and fall of the concept of character, says that from the 17th through the 19th centuries, character was “the most priceless thing a person could attain.” But with the advent of mass-produced consumer goods and greater leisure time in the 20th century, people began to define themselves less through virtue and more though personality. People focused on material possessions, fashion and other means of expressing themselves. Moral imperatives took a backseat to personal fulfillment and self-actualization, and “the vision of self-sacrifice began to yield to that of self-realization, marking a shift from achievement to performance. Concepts like citizenship, duty, honor, morals and manhood/womanhood were replaced by terms like stunning, fascinating, dominant, forceful, attractive and viral. But clearly, personality and character are two completely different things!
Whatever happened to character?
Have schools and parents stopped teaching and emphasizing character? Do people today only care about and appreciate their social media profiles? And if so, where are we headed? Having “character” is what makes a good person and later in life, a good leader. I’m reminded of a saying attributed to Abraham Lincoln: “Nearly all men can stand adversity, but if you want to test a man’s character, give him power.” Anyone can do the right thing when people are watching. People with true character do the right thing when no one is watching. My father always told me to be nice to people you meet on your way up because you may well meet them again on your way down. Our character is our legacy. What will be yours? And what will be your children’s?