Why Do People Abuse Their Power?

After the Weinstein assault allegations, it begs the question: why do people abuse their power? From infamous tyrants to personality disorders, we explore this question.


This is the sixth in a series of Friday posts on this blog called Friday Thoughts, or #Foughts, an in depth discussion on a character or topic I have found particularly interesting, or has divided opinion. 


Over the past couple of months salacious stories have crawled out of the woodwork about buried sexual assault cases carried out by people with massive influence and power, showing remarkable abuse of their power. But being a person of authority, presumably being a role model in the public eye, you would expect them to be extra careful with what they said to the media or how they behaved in front of others. So why is it that people of enormous power can be found to abuse it so profoundly?


Ordinary Boys Turn Sadistic

College boys are singly led into a corridor where they are stripped naked and doused with water. Humiliating. But the boys signed up for a psychology experiment that would become famous for its terrible outcome. The prisoners wear a smock dress and a chain round one ankle, while the guards carry batons and wear shades. All of the participants are college boys that have never been in a prison before and laugh their way through the first day, but throughout the experiment there would be rebellions, psychological bullying, nervous breakdowns, and college boys turning into sadistic guards. The Stanford Experiment was meant to least two weeks but was cut short after only six days.




What the experiment showed was that power struggles can change people, independent from what their personality was to begin with. Prisoners pulled elaborate plans to be released from the experiment, such as going on hunger strike, when they could have just quit, and prisoners rebelled against the ones who broke down. A third of the guards became cruel and mocking in their harassment of the prisoners, and one was even nicknamed ‘John Wayne’ because of his Wild West bully attitude. In six days, normal college boys changed into abusive guards or paranoid distrusting prisoners. The guards saw the prisoners as troublemakers with personal vendettas against them and they sought to punish them and make sure they had control over them in any way possible. If you are wondering about real-life examples of this, the Abu Ghraib Prison became infamous as an example of soldiers using their power to abuse and torture inmates, many of whom were innocents.


Similarly Stanley Milgram’s shock test proved that ordinary citizens could harm others if a person in authority told them to do so.


If, when given power, a college student who has never assaulted or abused people before can transform into an authoritarian and abusive dictator, how can a person who already has power use it for terrible and brutal actions?


The Angel of Death

In the worst place on earth, three-quarters of all Jews transported to Auschwitz were immediately sent to the gas chambers. The last quarter were forced to work at the concentration camp, some of them doctors assigned to help German SS Officers decide who was to be sent to die, or were housed separately to take part in experiments. The most infamous of these experiments were conducted on twins, as the Nazi thinking was that they were the superior race, and so research into hereditary genes would further bolster their ‘master race’ propaganda.


Josef Mengele was the SS Officer particularly obsessed by this research and took it upon himself personally to undertake selections which he wasn’t assigned to find test subjects. It was said that he did this with ease, whistling as he chose who would be saved from the gas chamber to be part of his experiments, whereas other SS Officers regarded it as extremely distressing. Some of his experiments included making one twin ill to see if they would both suffer, and when one twin died from this he would kill the other to dissect and study their organs. A particularly unforgivable test he carried out involving the stitching of two boys together to make Siamese twins, who would die of gangrene after days of intolerable suffering. Nicknamed the ‘Angel of Death’, he would greet children and insisted they call him “Uncle Mengele”, treating them better than the rest of the camp, then within hours sentence them to a torturous death.




He evaded capture when Auschwitz was liberated, and lived until he was old, dying of a stroke. He had an only son, Rolf, who grew up thinking he was his Uncle, but met him before his death when he was old. His son confronted him about such atrocities, and Josef’s reply? He said he saved people, he said his actions never happened – they were propaganda. He showed no remorse, after killing children with no thought.


Many Nazi’s justified their actions by claiming that they would have been killed if they hadn’t followed orders, and they were as much a prisoner as the Jews, but Mengele felt nothing for his victims and even lied to his son about what he did. Was there something in his makeup that formed the basis for his behaviour? Was he a psychopath?


Eva Kor was a surviving twin under Mengele’s tests and described him as a very smartly dressed professional doctor who genuinely felt that what he was doing was vital research. He believed that he was a kind of saviour because, without his tests, the children would have been gassed. He won accolades in his military career before Auschwitz and received a medal for saving two German soldiers from a tank under fire. He was proud and ambitious, and when the wagons arrived at the concentration camp full of Jews, he saw it as an opportunity to excel his research. Mengele was a member of the eugenics movement, built around an understanding that some genes are stronger than others, and he truly believed his experiments were doing the world a greater good in understanding genes. Mengele did not have mental issues and had a normal upbringing, he did great things for science before going to Auschwitz, and he felt that he could justify his monstrous actions because he was contributing to science.


In a study published by the Journal of Applied Psychology, it was found that if a person has a high moral compass they are more likely to use their power for the good of others, whereas a person with a low moral compass is more likely to use their power to benefit themselves with no regard for others. Although he had a normal upbringing and saved the lives of soldiers, Mengele seems to prove that this is not a simple theory. If one believes that they are doing good for other people even they are not, does that mean that they have a high moral compass or a low moral compass? Or is that compass broken in their mind?


Personality Disorders in Leaders

So, for people to abuse their power they are likely to have had a certain level of morality to determine how they will use or abuse that power. It could be more than just morality. There are three personality disorders that predestine abusive leaders:


Antisocial Personality Disorder

This is the disorder which has been described as the biggest ‘burden on society’ resulting in work absence and damage and distress to partners and children from the crimes they commit. People with this disorder exhibit symptoms from a young age and include harm to others and animals, theft, destruction of property and have the core aspects of psychopathy. They are callous and unemotional, thus able to inflict harm to others without remorse.


Histrionic Personality Disorder

People with this disorder parallel with the first in that people are over-emotional, they crave attention to the point of obsession and over-dramatise. They demand to be the centre of attention and may use inappropriate methods to do this such as sexual motives. They commandeer the role of the ‘life of the party’ and the conversation revolves around themselves, their appearance is tailored in a way to bring attention to themselves and constantly seek reassurance.


Narcissistic Personality Disorder

They have an exaggerated sense of superiority over others and are ambitious in their own pride, vanity, and power. They lack empathy and are only interested in themselves, taking advantage of others to get ahead.




This last personality disorder crops up frequently when looking back at leaders who abused their power. Examples include serial killer Ted Bundy who manipulated women, Adolf Hitler who led the world to war, and Joseph Stalin who arrested anyone who felt he shouldn’t be in power.


So far, we’ve seen how ordinary people can do bad things if they are put under great stress; how people justify terrible actions by thinking that they are working for a greater cause even if many people died for it; and how personality disorders predetermine leaders to abuse their power. But what about you? You may think of yourself a good person, you’d help out your friend with money issues or you may give up your seat for an elderly person on the bus. Do you think you could abuse power?


Are You A Good Person?

Do you ever balance out a bad deed with a good deed? Maybe you’re on a diet and you think “I had an apple this morning, so I can have dessert tonight to balance it out”, or you take somebody’s place on a crammed bus “well I have to get to work, and I let that person take my place in the queue last night for coffee, so this is fair”? It’s a trick of the mind called the ‘compensation effect’ which balances out bad things by good things, making you more inclined to do bad things because it’s just one time and you’re a good person. Right? Naming things differently is another way to cheat yourself out of confronting its seriousness. That affair you’re having on your husband? It’s just a fling, it’s just a bit of fun. That huge accounting fraud in your company? Let’s just call it ‘financial engineering’. The effect this has on the mind is that it skews with your perception of reality, and this is how people can get away with major incidents. If you feel that you may have fallen into one of these effects, there are twelve others that the ordinary citizen can find themselves slipping into.




Harvey Weinstein Abuse Allegations

The events that have been spiralling recently following Harvey Weinstein’s abuse accusations spurred me to write this article. Every week there is another list of people in the entertainment industry that have groped, spoken inappropriately or raped women and men because they felt they had the power to do it and get away with it. Usually the victims were people relying on the assailants for work or public reputation and felt they couldn’t speak out against it. Time and time again these people have gotten away with it because of their power. I have to flash a little light on the sexism aspect, that women who dress a certain way ‘should have seen it coming’ because that is still a shame aspect of it that stops the abused from speaking out.



I am advocating that society will stop using power as an excuse to let abusers get away with their actions. Leaders should be taking care of the people in their team and criminal actions should be dealt with by the law, not by studio executives. Why do people abuse their power? Because they can. Because they’ve been conditioned to believe that having power makes them indestructible, untouchable and Godly. And they believe that they deserve it or they are doing something good for them in the long term.


Do you think the recent abuse allegations will stop people from abusing their power? Or is it a part of having power, that people are at risk of being corrupted or allowing their personal immorality to take over?