We’ve all heard the expression, “Power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.” The common wisdom is that the more power a person accumulates, the more they feel justified in their actions and motivations. “I can do what I want, because after all, why else would I have this kind of power?”
But can research show a cause-and-effect relationship? Can an experiment demonstrate the slippery moral slope that people with power have also increases their moral hypocrisy (e.g., a failure to follow one’s own expressed moral rules and principles)?
Psychology to the rescue! Indeed it can. In a series of five experiments by Lammers et al. (2010), Dutch researchers tested the following hypothesis on college students…
We propose that power increases hypocrisy, so that the powerful show a greater discrepancy between what they practice and what they preach than the powerless do. Given that powerful individuals often make crucial decisions that have moral considerations, the question whether power increases moral hypocrisy is important. Nonetheless, the relationship between power and hypocrisy has not been tested empirically.
I won’t go into detail about each of the five experiments (I leave that to others who are interested in the details), but the researchers found the causal relationship they were looking for:
Across five experiments, irrespective of how power was manipulated or hypocrisy was measured, we found strong evidence that the powerful are more likely to engage in moral hypocrisy than are people who lack power.
In Experiment 1, we measured the discrepancy between moral judgments and actual immoral behavior and found that, compared with low-power participants, high-power participants engaged in more immoral behavior but found such behavior less acceptable.
In Experiments 2 through 5, we measured the discrepancy between the acceptability of one’s own moral transgressions and those committed by other people. The method we used in Experiment 1 had the advantage that actual behavior was measured, but it did not allow us to compute an absolute degree of hypocrisy (a discrepancy). Across Experiments 2 through 5, the powerful judged their own moral transgressions as more acceptable than other people’s, but low-power participants did not.
Across all five experiments, only the powerful showed hypocrisy. We found this pattern irrespective of whether the behavior in question was mildly inappropriate (cheating to obtain extra lottery tickets) or very inappropriate (a legal offense).
Our final study demonstrated the crucial role of entitlement: Only when power is experienced as legitimate is moral hypocrisy a likely result. If power is not experienced as legitimate, then the moral-hypocrisy effect disappears.
Is it any wonder politicians cheat, commit fraud and lie once they get into office? They feel their power is legitimate, and therefore they are entitled to more leeway in their own behaviors and thoughts. As the researchers noted, “the powerful impose more normative restraints on other people, but believe that they themselves can act with less restraint. ”
Naturally, these studies have a few limitations. Dutch college students may not be representative of other cultures and their views on morality, nor of older adults who may have a different or more nuanced view of morality as they grow older and more experienced.
Lammers, J., Stapel, D.A. & Galinsky, A.D. (2010). Power Increases Hypocrisy: Moralizing in Reasoning, Immorality in Behavior. Psychological Science. DOI: 10.1177/0956797610368810.
What is “powerful”?
I mean, does “powerful” mean being in a “position of power” (over other people) or does it mean having a quiet internal power? I think the two are often confused by the terminology.
This is very interesting research â€“ thank you for writing about it. We definitely need to understand the nuts-and-bolts of just how power corrupts. Or is it those that are more easily corruptible that tend to pursue power?…but a random sampling of Dutch students would correct for that possibility I would think.
That is one of the things that interested me in your article: we’re all susceptible to this corrupting influence. It also made me wonder how the same corrupting dynamic may be happening in subtle ways in my own life when I’m in a position of greater responsibility or power.
It is too bad that access to the article itself is so expensive (30 bucks!) because I’d be interested in seeing how the researches defined power, how they set up the experiments.
Nick Parsons, LMFT
This is interesting but I can’t tell from the info here if the experiment used people already deemed to be in recogised positions of power or if the subjects were given power in the experiment.
The later might be better because it would rule out the sorts of personality types who go after power positions in the first place, narcissists are overly focused on their own needs for instance, this helps them to get into power (at least for a while) and I expect they are shocking hypocrits, I’d guess obsessive compulsive personality disorder is much the same.
Dominance heirachies are probably part of our crude primate genes, I often think this is the real reason there are power positions everywhere, not because power is useful, rational or practical.
Still I hoping I’m wrong.
I think it is more like gained authority is allowing corruption, be that democraticaly elected oficial or awarded positions. Power itself when naturally one has it, would not necessarily cause corruption. However I too doubt conclusiveness of the resut about the homegenous nature of one isolated group by location or age group revealing anything but certain tendencies of that group.