Power corrupts—and inspires hypocrisy?

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The idea that power can promote hypocrisy is not new, or lacking for anecdotal evidence. From the infamous example of former New York Governor Eliot Spitzer‘s public persona as an enforcer of ethics contradicted by his private appetite for prostitutes, to South Carolina Governor Mark Sanford‘s messages of family values undermined by his transcontinental trysts with an Argentine mistress. Yet, while examples of hypocrisy among the high and mighty might be ample, until now there has been little research into what may drive the apparent inverse relationship between authority and integrity.

To address this issue, researchers from the Netherlands’ Tilburg University and Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management conducted a series of five experiments designed to examine the relationship between power and moral hypocrisy. The research, to be published in the journal Psychological Science, began with the hypothesis that the more an individual’s power increased, the less likely that person would be to follow his or her own moral compass. The team of researchers, including social psychologists Joris Lammers and Diederik A. Stapel and management ethics professor Adam D. Galinsky, defined moral hypocrisy as “a situation in which individuals do not follow their own expressed moral rules and principles.” They suggested that the disconnect—not practicing what you preach—hinges on the sense of entitlement that often accompanies authority. What’s more, they posited that the relationship between power and hypocrisy would be most evident in people who had earned their position of authority, but less so in those who had won their power illegitimately.

In the first experiment, study subjects—47 Dutch university students—were asked to recall an event in which they were either powerful or powerless. From there, they were divided into two groups. One was asked whether it was morally acceptable to over-report costs on a company expense report. The other group was told that they would be rewarded either €25, €50 or €100 for participating in the study, and the amount would be determined by the outcome of rolling three-colored dice (with each color representing a different amount). Participants in the second group were allowed to roll the dice in private, unmonitored cubicles, giving them ample opportunity to cheat. Lammers and colleagues found that, “powerful” participants were both more likely to stress the importance of moral integrity and more likely to cheat.

The three subsequent experiments were variations on this structure, giving participants opportunity to judge whether an action would be acceptable if performed by themselves or by others, for example. After being divvied into powerful and powerless groups, participants were asked whether speeding to make an appointment, fibbing on tax reports and taking home an “abandoned” bicycle were morally legitimate actions. Again, they found that, when “powerful” participants condemned these actions in others, they consented to them personally, and vice versa. In contrast, not only did people in positions of lower power not show evidence of hypocrisy, but they were also more lenient in their assessments of others’ bad behavior.

In the final experiment, researchers set out to decouple power from entitlement, the force they theorized drives hypocrisy in the powerful. In this round, 105 students were divided into two groups. The first was asked to write about an experience in which they gained power or lost it through valid means; the second was asked to do the same, but for illegitimate power. Then, all participants were faced with the moral dilemma of the abandoned bicycle. They found that, as in previous experiments, those who felt they had legitimate power were more likely to exhibit hypocrisy—condemning others’ desire to steal the bike, while being more likely to keep the bike themselves, for example. In the low power groups, participants consistently applied the same standards to themselves and others, as in the previous experiments. And, finally, in the group with illegitimate power, there was no evidence of moral hypocrisy. (That is, they felt the same about stealing the bike whether they were the one to do it or someone else.)

So what does this mean for society? Lammers and colleagues suggest that the multi-dimensional relationship between power, hypocrisy and entitlement is a central force driving social inequality. As they write:

“[T]hese and others findings show that the protection of social inequality is not something necessarily imposed by one group and resisted by the other. Rather, the stability of the system comes from within, in the sense that even the victims of that system contribute to its acceptance.”

In other words, by putting up with the hypocrisy of the powerful, the rest of us are only perpetuating the cycle of social inequality and disenfranchisement among people without power. So, what can we do to break this cycle? Lammers et al suggest making people in positions of authority a little less comfortable, through, well, gossip. But, how can all of that idle chatter your mother warned you against actually be a force for social good? The authors explain:

If the powerful sense that their unrestrained self-enrichment leads to gossiping, derision, and the undermining of their reputation as conscientious leaders, then they may be inspired to bring their behavior back to their espoused standards. If they fail to do so, they may quickly lose their authority, reputation, and— eventually—their power.