Joseph Stalin, Fidel Castro, and the infamous Adolf Hitler all led powerful positions that changed the course of history, and during their rule, they were arguably some of the most corrupt men in the world. But when they first took their position of power, were they honest, morally good men who were changed by virtue of ruling? Or were they corrupt to begin with? Swiss researchers from the University of Lausanne studied power's ability to seduce even the most morally grounded people, and published their findings in the journal The Leadership Quarterly.

"We looked to examine what Lord Acton said over 100 years ago, that 'Power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely,” the study’s coauthor John Antonakis, a researcher from the University of Lausanne, said in a press release. "We think that strong governance mechanisms and strong institutions are the key to keeping leaders in check. Organizations should limit how much leaders can drink from the seductive chalice of power."

Antonakis quotes from British historian Lord John Dalberg-Acton: “Power tends to corrupt and absolute power corrupts absolutely.” The researchers wrestle trying to understand whether positions of power turn people into corrupt individuals or if the power positions attract those types of people. The question is complicated to answer, which is why by studying the causal and correlative relationship between power and position, researchers were able to untangle whether the chicken or the egg came first.

The research team used incentivized games to manipulate the leaders in their experiments and gave them the power to pay themselves and their followers. The trick was seeing if the leaders make decisions to benefit the public good and how their testosterone changed throughout their time in power. Testosterone levels skyrocketed when they were the leaders, and those who were honest to begin with were not immune to the attraction of corruption, which turns out can be quite irresistible.

The “dictator game” the participants played only revealed how honest men could become corrupt and how those who started out less honest and corrupt had worsened over time. Corruption is namely the abuse of power, and when a leader decides their bonus check should increase while the rest of the workers remain stagnant, they exhibit one of the most common abuses of power. Testosterone levels only ramp up their egotistical facade even more.

Testosterone is one of the key ingredients in social relations and is linked to aggression and dominance. This innate pull to enforce power by inflating one’s paycheck is a primitive illustration of a person’s self-importance and the amount of value they put into their leadership. There was nothing neither nonchalant in the way Hitler overtook Germany and Poland nor how Russian President Putin was laidback about his attempted takeover of Ukraine.

Source: Antonakin J, Bendahan S, Zehnder C, and PPralong F. Leader corruption depends on power and testosterone. The Leadership Quarterly. 2014.