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In the lab too, power breeds hypocrisy*

January 5, 2010 |  7:33 pm

In politics, the bedroom, the boardroom -- even perhaps on the golf course -- we often breathe deep the perfume of sanctimony and recoil at the foul smell that lies beneath. We shake our collective heads at the preacher brought low by temptations of the flesh, at the crusading lawman pilloried for malfeasance, at the titan of capitalism denouncing a helping hand even as he slips his welfare check into the company coffers.

Does power make fertile ground for a person to develop double standards?  Do the powerful think themselves less bound by the moral strictures they would apply to everyone else? A recent parade of disgraced governors, brazenly greedy CEOs and wayward sports icons seems to say yes, and yes. 

A series of psychology experiments outlined in a forthcoming issue of the journal Psychological Science  says so as well. That's a publication of the newly named Assn. for Psychological Science (previously the American Psychological Society). 

Psychologists at Tilburg University in the Netherlands and Northwestern University's Kellogg School of Management conducted five separate role-playing experiments in which university students -- all female -- were assigned a range of positions from flunky to fat cat. The researchers then dangled temptation in front of their subjects with little seeming risk of getting caught. And in surveys, they plumbed participants' attitudes exhaustively about the acceptability of engaging in behavior as varied as padding expense accounts, disobeying traffic laws and appropriating a found bicycle.

Throughout, participants were divided into two groups -- each containing the full spectrum of weak and powerful. One group completed surveys on the moral acceptability of others engaging in a set of questionable behaviors. The other group completed surveys on the moral acceptability of their own transgressions in the same scenarios. 

Across the five experiments, the researchers reported, "we found strong evidence that the powerful are more likely to engage in moral hypocrisy than those lacking power." Compared to the weak, the powerful were both more likely to cheat furtively on a dice-rolling exercise and to declare expense-account padding, scofflaw driving and failing to turn in a found bicycle reprehensible -- when others engaged in those behaviors. When asked to rate the acceptability of such behavior on their own part, the powerful were decidedly more forgiving.

"The powerful judged their own moral transgressions more acceptable" than those committed by others. Weaklings, by contrast, appeared to hold themselves to a higher standard of behavior than that to which they held others -- a phenomenon dubbed "hypercrisy" by the researchers.

We who take pleasure in seeing a powerful hypocrite unmasked may savor the simple pleasures of vindication. But the researchers found greater meaning in their findings. A sense of moral entitlement on the part of the powerful and of moral subservience on the part of the weak is what perpetuates social inequality, they wrote. And it maintains order by preventing the beleaguered poor from rising up against the powerful and morally entitled.

-- Melissa Healy

*This post contains a change in the sixth paragraph to better reflect the studies' findings.