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.