New research indicates that the sexual hormone testosterone might have a corrupting effect on people in positions of authority. The research also went some way towards supporting the age-old notion that power corrupts.
Four academics from the University of Lausanne in Switzerland were behind the study, led by John Antonakis, Professor of organisational behaviour. The research has been published in the Leadership Quarterly journal.
They used volunteers to carry out two variants of a classic social experiment known as the "dictator game". In the first test, 162 business students were randomly selected to be "leaders". They were each given between one and three followers, together with a pot of real money. They were then invited to distribute the money to their teams.
The result showed that the leaders with more followers tended to take more money for themselves. This indicates that power really does have a corrupting effect.
Lord Acton's famous aphorism would have it: "Power tends to corrupt and absolute power corrupts absolutely." Professor Antonakis's version is more dramatic. "Power is to leaders what blood is to vampires," he said. "Once they get a taste of it, they can't let go."
In the second test, personal traits of 240 students were assessed and their testosterone levels measured. Other studies have shown that high testosterone levels can be linked to antisocial behaviour and self-centered attitudes, in addition to lower capacities for empathy.
The students voted on how much money it would be reasonable for the leader to take, before playing the dictator game themselves. The finding indicated, again, that the great power a leader wielded, the more likely he or she was to take an unfair share of the money.
High levels of personal honesty gave limited protection against corruption.
But high testosterone levels also made leaders more likely to grab more than their fair share of the money.
"High testosterone individuals will be 'tuned-off' from feeling the emotional impact their decisions will have on others and will tend to focus on maximizing their payoffs," said Antonakis.