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power corrupts, but it corrupts only those who think they deserve
January 21, 2010
Reports of politicians
who have extramarital affairs while complaining about the death
of family values, or who use public funding for private gain despite
condemning government waste, have become so common in recent years
that they hardly seem surprising anymore. Anecdotally, at least,
the connection between power and hypocrisy looks obvious.
not science, though. And, more subtly, even if anecdote is correct,
it does not answer the question of whether power tends to corrupt,
as Lord Acton's dictum has it, or whether it merely attracts the
corruptible. To investigate this question Joris Lammers at Tilburg
University, in the Netherlands, and Adam Galinsky at Northwestern
University, in Illinois, have conducted a series of experiments
which attempted to elicit states of powerfulness and powerlessness
in the minds of volunteers. Having done so, as they report in Psychological
science, they tested those volunteers' moral pliability. Lord Acton,
they found, was right.
In their first study,
Dr Lammers and Dr Galinsky asked 61 university students to write
about a moment in their past when they were in a position of high
or low power. Previous research has established that this is an
effective way to "prime" people into feeling as if they
are currently in such a position. Each group (high power and low
power) was then split into two further groups. Half were asked to
rate, on a nine-point morality scale (with one being highly immoral
and nine being highly moral), how objectionable it would be for
other people to over-report travel expenses at work. The other half
were asked to participate in a game of dice.
The dice players were
told to roll two ten-sided dice (one for "tens" and one
for "units") in the privacy of an isolated cubicle, and
report the results to a lab assistant. The number they rolled, which
would be a value between one and 100 (two zeros), would determine
the number of tickets that they would be given in a small lottery
that was run at the end of the study.
In the case of the travel
expenses--when the question hung on the behaviour of others--participants
in the high-power group reckoned, on average, that over-reporting
rated as a 5.8 on the nine-point scale. Low-power participants rated
it 7.2. The powerful, in other words, claimed to favour the moral
course. In the dice game, however, high-power participants reported,
on average, that they had rolled 70 while low-power individuals
reported an average 59. Though the low-power people were probably
cheating a bit (the expected average score would be 50), the high-power
volunteers were undoubtedly cheating--perhaps taking the term "high
roller" rather too literally.
Taken together, these
results do indeed suggest that power tends to corrupt and to promote
a hypocritical tendency to hold other people to a higher standard
than oneself. To test the point further, though, Dr Lammers and
Dr Galinsky explicitly contrasted attitudes to self and other people
when the morally questionable activity was the same in each case.
Having once again primed two groups of participants to be either
high-power or low-power, they then asked some members of each group
how acceptable it would be for someone else to break the speed limit
when late for an appointment and how acceptable it would be for
the participant himself to do so. Others were asked similar questions
about tax declarations.
the little people pay taxes
In both cases
participants used the same one-to-nine scale employed in the first
experiment. The results showed that the powerful do, indeed, behave
hypocritically. They felt that others speeding because they were
late warranted a 6.3 on the scale whereas speeding themselves warranted
a 7.6. Low-power individuals, by contrast, saw everyone as equal.
They scored themselves as 7.2 and others at 7.3--a statistically
insignificant difference. In the case of tax dodging, the results
were even more striking. High-power individuals felt that when others
broke tax laws this rated as a 6.6 on the morality scale, but that
if they did so themselves this rated as a 7.6. In this case low-power
individuals were actually easier on others and harsher on themselves,
with values of 7.7 and 6.8 respectively.
These results, then,
suggest that the powerful do indeed behave hypocritically, condemning
the transgressions of others more than they condemn their own. Which
comes as no great surprise, although it is always nice to have everyday
observation confirmed by systematic analysis. But another everyday
observation is that powerful people who have been caught out often
show little sign of contrition. It is not just that they abuse the
system; they also seem to feel entitled to abuse it. To investigate
this point, Dr Lammers and Dr Galinsky devised a third set of experiments.
These were designed to disentangle the concept of power from that
of entitlement. To do this, the researchers changed the way they
Half of 105 participants
were asked to write about a past experience in which they had legitimately
been given a role of high or low power. The others were asked to
write about an experience of high or low power where they did not
feel their power (or lack of it) was legitimate. All of the volunteers
were then asked to rate how immoral it would be for someone to take
an abandoned bicycle rather than report the bicycle to the police.
They were also asked, if they were in real need of a bicycle, how
likely they would be to take it themselves and not report it.
who had been primed to believe they were entitled to their power
readily engaged in acts of moral hypocrisy. They assigned a value
of 5.1 to others engaging in the theft of the bicycle while rating
the action at 6.9 if they were to do it themselves. Among participants
in all of the low-power states, morally hypocritical behaviour inverted
itself, as it had in the case of tax fraud. "Legitimate"
low-power individuals assigned others a score of 5.1 if they stole
a bicycle and gave themselves a 4.3. Those primed to feel that their
lack of power was illegitimate behaved similarly, assigning values
of 4.7 and 4.4 respectively.
However, an intriguing
characteristic emerged among participants in high-power states who
felt they did not deserve their elevated positions. These people
showed a similar tendency to that found in low-power individuals--to
be harsh on themselves and less harsh on others--but the effect
was considerably more dramatic. They felt that others warranted
a lenient 6.0 on the morality scale when stealing a bike but assigned
a highly immoral 3.9 if they took it themselves. Dr Lammers and
Dr Galinsky call this reversal "hypercrisy".
They argue, therefore,
that people with power that they think is justified break rules
not only because they can get away with it, but also because they
feel at some intuitive level that they are entitled to take what
they want. This sense of entitlement is crucial to understanding
why people misbehave in high office. In its absence, abuses will
be less likely. The word "privilege" translates as "private
law". If Dr Lammers and Dr Galinsky are right, the sense which
some powerful people seem to have that different rules apply to
them is not just a convenient smoke screen. They genuinely believe
hypercrisy is less obvious. It is known, though, from experiments
on other species that if those at the bottom of a dominance hierarchy
show signs of getting uppity, those at the top react both quickly
and aggressively. Hypercrisy might thus be a signal of submissiveness--one
that is exaggerated in creatures that feel themselves to be in the
wrong place in the hierarchy. By applying reverse privileges to
themselves, they hope to escape punishment from the real dominants.
Perhaps the lesson, then, is that corruption and hypocrisy are the
price that societies pay for being led by alpha males (and, in some
cases, alpha females). The alternative, though cleaner, is leadership
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