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Power promotes hypocrisy, study finds

Dec. 29, 2009
Courtesy Association for Psychological Science
and World Science staff

2009 may well be re­mem­bered for its scandal-ridden head­lines, from ad­mis­sions of ex­tra­mar­i­tal af­fairs by gov­er­nors and sen­a­tors, to cor­po­rate ex­ec­u­tives fly­ing pri­vate jets while cut­ting em­ploy­ee ben­e­fits, and most re­cent­ly, to a mys­te­ri­ous early morn­ing car crash in Flor­i­da. The past year has been marked by a se­ries of mor­al trans­gres­sions by pow­er­ful fig­ures in po­lit­i­cal, busi­ness and celebr­ity cir­cles.

A new study ex­plores why pow­er­ful peo­ple – many of whom take a mor­al high ground – don’t prac­tice what they preach. Above, a ses­sion of U.S. Con­gress pre­pares to lis­ten to the pre­si­dent's State of the Union Speech in a 2003 White House photo.


A new study ex­plores why pow­er­ful peo­ple – many of whom take a mor­al high ground – don’t prac­tice what they preach.

Re­search­ers sought to de­ter­mine wheth­er pow­er in­spires hy­poc­ri­sy, the ten­den­cy to hold high stan­dards for oth­ers while per­form­ing mor­ally sus­pect be­hav­iors one­self. The re­search found that pow­er makes peo­ple stricter in mor­al judg­ment of oth­ers – while go­ing easier on them­selves.

The re­search was con­ducted by Joris Lam­mers and Diederik A. Stapel of Til­burg Un­ivers­ity in the Neth­er­lands, and by Ad­am Galin­sky of the Kel­logg School of Man­age­ment at North­west­ern Un­ivers­ity in Ev­ans­ton, Ill. The ar­ti­cle is to ap­pear in a forth­com­ing is­sue of Psy­cho­log­i­cal Sci­ence.

“This re­search is es­pe­cially rel­e­vant to the big­gest scan­dals of 2009, as we look back on how pri­vate be­hav­ior of­ten con­tra­dicted the pub­lic stance of par­tic­u­lar in­di­vid­u­als in pow­er,” said Galin­sky. “For in­stance, we saw some politi­cians use pub­lic funds for pri­vate ben­e­fits while call­ing for smaller gov­ern­ment, or have ex­tra­mar­i­tal af­fairs while ad­vo­cat­ing family val­ues. Sim­i­lar­ly, we wit­nessed CEOs of ma­jor fi­nan­cial in­sti­tu­tions ac­cept­ing ex­ec­u­tive bo­nus­es while sim­ul­ta­ne­ously ask­ing for gov­ern­ment bail­out mon­ey.”

“Ac­cord­ing to our re­search, pow­er and in­flu­ence can cause a se­vere dis­con­nect be­tween pub­lic judg­ment and pri­vate be­hav­ior, and as a re­sult, the pow­er­ful are stricter in their judg­ment of oth­ers while be­ing more le­ni­ent to­ward their own ac­tions,” he con­tin­ued.

To sim­u­late an ex­pe­ri­ence of pow­er, the re­search­ers as­signed roles of high-pow­er and low-pow­er po­si­tions to a group of study par­ti­ci­pants. Some were as­signed the role of prime min­is­ter and oth­ers civ­il serv­ant. The par­ti­ci­pants were then pre­sented with mor­al dilem­mas re­lat­ed to break­ing traf­fic rules, de­clar­ing taxes, and re­turn­ing a stol­en bike.

Through a se­ries of five ex­pe­ri­ments, the re­search­ers ex­am­ined the im­pact of pow­er on mor­al hy­poc­ri­sy. For ex­am­ple, in one ex­pe­ri­ment the “pow­er­ful” par­ti­ci­pants con­demned the cheat­ing of oth­ers while cheat­ing more them­selves. High-pow­er par­ti­ci­pants al­so tended to con­demn over-reporting of trav­el ex­penses. But, when giv­en a chance to cheat on a di­ce game to win lot­tery tick­ets (played alone in a pri­vate cu­bi­cle), the pow­er­ful peo­ple re­ported win­ning a high­er amount of lot­tery tick­ets than did low-pow­er par­ti­ci­pants.

Three ad­di­tion­al ex­pe­ri­ments fur­ther ex­am­ined the de­gree to which pow­er­ful peo­ple ac­cept their own mor­al trans­gres­sions ver­sus those com­mit­ted by oth­ers. In all cases, those as­signed to high-pow­er roles showed sig­nif­i­cant hy­poc­ri­sy by more strictly judg­ing oth­ers for speed­ing, dodg­ing taxes and keep­ing a stol­en bike, while find­ing it more ac­ceptable to en­gage in these be­hav­iors them­selves, the re­search­ers said.

Galin­sky said hy­poc­ri­sy has its great­est im­pact among peo­ple who are le­git­i­mately pow­er­ful. In con­trast, a fifth ex­pe­ri­ment found that peo­ple who don’t feel per­son­ally en­ti­tled to their pow­er are ac­tu­ally harder on them­selves than they are on oth­ers, a phe­nom­e­non the re­search­ers dubbed “hy­per­crisy.” The ten­den­cy to be harder on the self than on oth­ers al­so char­ac­ter­ized the pow­erless in mul­ti­ple stud­ies.

“Ul­ti­mately, pat­terns of hy­poc­ri­sy and hy­per­crisy per­pet­u­ate so­cial in­equal­ity. The pow­er­ful im­pose rules and re­straints on oth­ers while dis­re­gard­ing these re­straints for them­selves, where­as the pow­erless col­la­bo­rate in re­pro­duc­ing so­cial in­equal­ity be­cause they don’t feel the same en­ti­tle­ment,” Galin­sky con­clud­ed.


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2009 may well be remembered for its scandal-ridden headlines, from admissions of extramarital affairs by governors and senators, to corporate executives flying private jets while cutting employee benefits, and most recently, to a mysterious early morning car crash in Florida. The past year has been marked by a series of moral transgressions by powerful figures in political, business and celebrity circles. New research explores why powerful people – many of whom take a moral high ground – don’t practice what they preach. Researchers sought to determine whether power inspires hypocrisy, the tendency to hold high standards for others while performing morally suspect behaviors oneself. The research finds that power makes people stricter in moral judgment of others – while being less strict of their own behavior. The research was conducted by Joris Lammers and Diederik A. Stapel of Tilburg University in the Netherlands, and by Adam Galinsky of the Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University in Evanston, Ill. The article is to appear in a forthcoming issue of Psychological Science. “This research is especially relevant to the biggest scandals of 2009, as we look back on how private behavior often contradicted the public stance of particular individuals in power,” said Galinsky, the Morris and Alice Kaplan Professor of Ethics and Decision in Management at the Kellogg School. “For instance, we saw some politicians use public funds for private benefits while calling for smaller government, or have extramarital affairs while advocating family values. Similarly, we witnessed CEOs of major financial institutions accepting executive bonuses while simultaneously asking for government bailout money on behalf of their companies.” “According to our research, power and influence can cause a severe disconnect between public judgment and private behavior, and as a result, the powerful are stricter in their judgment of others while being more lenient toward their own actions,” he continued. To simulate an experience of power, the researchers assigned roles of high-power and low-power positions to a group of study participants. Some were assigned the role of prime minister and others civil servant. The participants were then presented with moral dilemmas related to breaking traffic rules, declaring taxes, and returning a stolen bike. Through a series of five experiments, the researchers examined the impact of power on moral hypocrisy. For example, in one experiment the “powerful” participants condemned the cheating of others while cheating more themselves. High-power participants also tended to condemn over-reporting of travel expenses. But, when given a chance to cheat on a dice game to win lottery tickets (played alone in a private cubicle), the powerful people reported winning a higher amount of lottery tickets than did low-power participants. Three additional experiments further examined the degree to which powerful people accept their own moral transgressions versus those committed by others. In all cases, those assigned to high-power roles showed significant hypocrisy by more strictly judging others for speeding, dodging taxes and keeping a stolen bike, while finding it more acceptable to engage in these behaviors themselves, the researchers said. Galinsky said hypocrisy has its greatest impact among people who are legitimately powerful. In contrast, a fifth experiment found that people who don’t feel personally entitled to their power are actually harder on themselves than they are on others, which is a phenomenon the researchers dubbed “hypercrisy.” The tendency to be harder on the self than on others also characterized the powerless in multiple studies. “Ultimately, patterns of hypocrisy and hypercrisy perpetuate social inequality. The powerful impose rules and restraints on others while disregarding these restraints for themselves, whereas the powerless collaborate in reproducing social inequality because they don’t feel the same entitlement,” Galinsky concluded.