Jul 19

When a certain former New York State Attorney General became New York Governor, he pledged to “change the ethics of Albany” and make “ethics and integrity the hallmarks of [his] administration.” Sure enough, he went on to fight collar crime and corruption, reduce pollution and prosecute a couple prostitution rings. Oh, but then the New York Times disclosed that this same law-and-order Governor was patronizing high-priced prostitutes. So much for changing the ethics of Albany.

Power and moral hypocrisy are not strangers – it’s one of the oldest stories around (generally going under the name of hubris), and we see it all the time. But why?

A few social scientists decided to take a stab at finding an answer. Joris Lammers and Diederik A. Stapel (from Tilburg University) and Adam D. Galinsky (from Northwestern University) ran five experiments addressing how morality differs among the powerless and powerful.

They simulated a bureaucratic organization and randomly assigned participants to be in a high-power role (prime-minister) or low-power role (civil servant). The prime-minister could control and direct the civil servants. Next, the researchers presented all participants with a seemingly unrelated moral dilemma from among the following: failure to declare all wages on a tax form, violation of traffic rules, and possession of a stolen bike. In each case, participants used a 9-point scale (1: completely unacceptable, 9: fully acceptable) to rate the acceptability of the act. However, half of the participants rated how acceptable it would be if they themselves engaged in the act, while the other half rated how acceptable it would be if others engaged in it.

The researchers found that compared to participants without power, powerful participants were stricter in judging others’ moral transgressions but more lenient in judging their own: “power increases hypocrisy, meaning that the powerful show a greater discrepancy between what they practice and what they preach.”

Joris and Adam hypothesized that this power-hypocrisy connection was due to the sense of entitlement that comes with positions of power. But what if you took away that entitlement by having participants view their power as illegitimate? In that case, the researchers posited, you would see the power-hypocrisy effect disappear.

To test their idea, they had 105 Dutch students write about an experience in which they were powerful or powerless. But half of the participants were asked to write about a time when they deserved their high or low power (it was legitimate), while the other half were asked to write about a time when they didn’t deserve their high or low power. They then had to rate the acceptability of the bike dilemma from above.

Results: when power (or lack thereof) was legitimate, the powerful also exhibited moral hypocrisy (being less moral themselves but judging others more harshly), while the powerless weren’t – just as before. But when power (or lack thereof) was illegitimate, the powerful didn’t show hypocrisy. In fact, the moral hypocrisy effect not only disappeared but was reversed, with the illegitimately powerful becoming stricter in judging their own behavior and more lenient in judging the others.