When power makes us cruel
Although absolute power is supposed to corrupt absolutely, a recent experiment suggests that power without status is the most corrupting. In the experiment, students were told they would be interacting with a fellow student in a business exercise and were randomly assigned to either a high-status “Idea Producer” role or low-status “Worker” role. They were then told that they and their partner would also be entered in a raffle after the study, but, regardless of role, each student had to select at least one task (from a list of 10, some more demeaning than others) for their partner to do to be entered in the raffle. Some of the students could make this selection without reciprocal consequences (i.e., high power), while others faced potential retaliation (i.e., low power). Students assigned to the low-status role but who were subsequently granted power selected the most demeaning tasks for their partners.
If you're interested in understanding why some people have power and others don't you need to read this book.
Source: Boston Globe & Fast, N. et al., “The Destructive Nature of Power without Status,” Journal of Experimental Social Psychology (forthcoming).