60-Second Mind

Powerful and Bad in 2009

Recent research finds that a feeling of entitlement to power can inspire hypocrisy. Christie Nicholson reports

So 2009 was, in part, a year of powerful people behaving badly.  

We had Kanye West stealing Taylor Swift’s moment at the VMA awards, South Carolina governor Mark Sanford disappearing to, ahem, hike the Appalachian trail, and of course David Letterman, Tiger Woods… 
Well new research to be published in Psychological Science supports the old notion that power corrupts.  Specifically, power can breed hypocrisy: the powerful can feel entitled not to obey the moral rules they demand others to follow.

Researchers assigned 172 subjects high-power roles (prime minister) and low-power roles (civil servant.) The subjects had to consider a series of moral dilemmas involving stolen bikes, breaking traffic rules, and instituting taxes. 
In each of five experiments the more powerful characters consistently showed moral hypocrisy.  They disapproved of immoral behavior (e.g., the over-reporting of expenses) and yet behaved badly themselves.

For instance, when powerful characters were given an opportunity to self-report their success in a dice game, they cheated, reporting that they won more times than they actually did.

The authors note that a sense of entitlement is key. Those who believe they are entitled to a high status position tend to be more hypocritical than those who feel they’re not deserving of power.

In fact, this latter group held themselves to a higher standard than they did others. The powerful who did not feel entitled behaved similarly to powerless characters who tend to be harder on themselves than on others.


—Christie Nicholson

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