Empirical evidence: power corrupts?

March 1, 2010

Professor Michael Roberto blogs about new research that confirms the old saying about the corrupting influence of power.

The research suggests it’s not the power in and of itself, but the leader’s sense of entitlement to that power.  Those with more humility – for lack of a better term – about how high they’ve climbed seem to be harder judges of their own behavior than those who instead believe It’s Good To Be The King.  Professor Roberto:

Lord Acton once said, “Power corrupts. Absolute power corrupts absolutely.” This week, The Economist reports on some new research by psychologists Joris Lammers and Adam Galinsky. In an experiment they conducted, they examined people in four different states: 1) high power, believed to be achieved legitimately, 2) low power, believed to be legitimate, 3) high power, believed to be achieved illegitimately, 4) low power believed to be illegitimate.

These scholars found that high power individuals who believed that, “they were entitled to their power readily engaged in acts of moral hypocrisy.” On the other hand, low power individuals did not engage in moral hypocrisy. In fact, they tended to be harder on themselves than on others, when judging immoral behavior (such as stealing an abandoned bicycle). Lammers and Galinsky coined the term “hypercrisy” to describe that behavior. Now, here is the most interesting part: the high power individuals who believed that they had been ascribed that power, but were not really entitled to it, actually behaved just as the low power individuals did. What’s the conclusion? It appears that the feeling of entitlement among powerful individuals actually becomes the fundamental driver of misbehavior and immoral behavior. Of course, we all knew this intuitively, but the stark findings here provide some persuasive empirical evidence, while also showing us the interesting “harsher on themselves than others” effect for low power individuals.

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