Greater Expectations of Powerful May Help Curb Unethical Behavior

New research offers new ideas for curbing unethical behavior by those in power.

In a series of studies, researchers showed that focusing on how the powerful think about their behavior can actually serve as a form of “preventative medicine” against the abuse of power.

“We suggest that how today’s leaders and managers think about the power they wield can shape how they behave,” said lead author Miao Hu, Ph.D., of the Shidler College of Business at the University of Hawai’i at Manoa. “Moreover, focusing the powerful to think about how they should behave may serve as a potential form of preventative medicine against the abuse of power.”

For the study, published in Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, Hu collaborated with Drs. Derek Rucker of Northwestern University and Adam Galinsky of Columbia University.

In a series of three experiments, the three demonstrated that activating descriptive expectations for power — what others believe people actually do — leads the powerful to cheat more than the powerless.

However, when people activate prescriptive expectation — or what others believe people should do — that leads the powerful to cheat less than the powerless.

The first experiment asked 202 participants to rate whether a series of unethical behaviors is consistent with their expectations of the powerful or the powerless. While participants thought the powerful would “typically and often behave” unethically, in contrast, they also thought the powerful “should behave” less unethically.

In a second experiment, the researchers manipulated 222 participants’ sense of power and types of expectations before measuring their likelihood to engage in unethical behavior.

They found those in high power reported higher intentions of unethical behavior than those of low-power when focused on descriptive expectations.

This pattern reversed under the prescriptive scenario in that the powerful had less unethical intentions than the less powerful. They replicated this study with another independent sample of participants and found similar results.

The final test involved the opportunity to cheat in a die roll game. The experiment gave 182 college students the chance to roll a die five times for the chance to win a $50 gift card. The higher their roll totals, the more times their name would be entered into a drawing for the gift card.

After giving the participants the instructions, the researchers allowed the students to report their totals. Analyzing the reported numbers, the researchers said they could determine if the number of successful high rolls was significantly higher than pure chance, which would be a sign of cheating.

While signs of cheating appeared in several of the research groups, there was a noticeable difference for those in the high power conditions, according to the study’s findings. The high power participants in the descriptive condition cheated significantly more than participants in the prescriptive condition.

“When the powerful think about how those with power do behave, such as descriptive expectations, they behave more unethically and cheat more,” Hu said. “However, when the powerful think about how those with power should behave, as in prescriptive expectations, they behave more ethically and cheat less.”

This prescriptive nature could help leaders, according to the researchers.

“First, organizations might lessen the corrupting effects of power by highlighting how the powerful should behave,” said Hu. “Leaders can also remind themselves how they should behave to prevent their own misuse of power.”

Source: Society of Personality and Social Psychology
Man thinking about self and fairness with others photo by shutterstock.