A new study, published in the Journal of Experimental Psychology, suggests individuals with higher testosterone may be more inclined to abuse their power and exploit others.
Co-authored by Nicole Mead, Roy Baumeister, Anika Stuppy, and Kathleen Vohs, the study explores why leaders tend to abuse their power.
“I think there is a lot of opportunity for leaders to do good in this world. Yet, throughout history and to this day if you look at the news and social media, many leaders use their power for their own good rather than the good of others,” Nicole Mead of the University of Melbourne told PsyPost.
Mead and her colleagues studied 206 men and women. Participants were randomly assigned into two separate conditions. One group was told they would become the “boss” in a group task. Participants in the control condition were told all group members would have equal control.
People with higher testosterone were more likely to agree with statements such as, “There is nothing wrong with occasionally taking credit for one of your subordinates’ ideas,” but those with low testosterone were not. In short, those with low and average testosterone did not evolve into narcissists when given social power, but those with high testosterone did.
Mead explained the results.
“The good news is that people with low testosterone and even average testosterone did not become narcissistic when they gained social power, which was about 85% of our sample. So social power has the worst effects when it gets into the hands of those who want it the most and are the most likely to get it.”
Although previous research has indicated that narcissists are more likely to hold on to positions of powers, authors suggest this study shows power itself can produce a narcissist.
Why? Mead and her colleagues were not able to answer this question. Based on past research, however, scientists suspect feelings of entitlement and exploitation help leaders protect their power, by leaving a gap between themselves and those they’re supposed to lead.
Social power, authors said, is at its worst in the hands of those who crave it. They are also the most likely to get it. This is why study authors suggest our society needs to be more careful about leader selection; we need to regulate our leaders and seek transparency.
High-testosterone narcissists are attracted to power, and they tend to misuse it and exploit others, so narcissism in leaders has societal implications.
Researchers concluded the following.
“Taken together, these results suggest that people with high (but not low) testosterone may be inclined to misuse their power because having power over others makes them feel entitled to special treatment. This work identifies testosterone as a characteristic that contributes to the development of the socially toxic component of narcissism (Exploitative/Entitlement). It points to the possibility that structural positions of power and individual differences in narcissism may be mutually reinforcing, suggesting a vicious cycle with personal, relational, and societal implications.”
Clearly, narcissistic leaders are difficult to deal with, so researchers have suggested a few practical solutions. Instead of focusing the leader on in-company competition, companies should focus them on competition with other firms.
Narcissists want to be adored, so their buttons can be pushed by questions relating to what others think of them. Lastly, “if leaders don’t have followers, they don’t have power,” researchers said, suggesting everyone can take on a narcissist with the support of others.