By Davi Barker This was originally posted at Examiner.com. Comments on the original are appreciated.
Throughout this series we have discussed the psychological and physiological affect that power has on obedience, honesty and compassion. Now we come to the final, and perhaps most important part of this series: hypocrisy. It has become almost a cliche that the most outspoken anti-gay politicians are in fact closet homosexuals themselves, and the champions of “traditional family values” are engaged in an extramarital affairs. Nothing is more common than the fiscal conservative who demands ridiculous luxuries at the taxpayer’s expense, or the anti-war progressive who takes campaign donations from the military industrial complex. Well, not it seems there’s some science behind the hypocrisy of those in power.
Power and Hypocrisy: (raw data)
Joris Lammers, from Tilburg University, and Adam Galinsky of Kellogg School of Management have conducted a battery of experiments designed to test how having a sense of power influenced a person’s moral standards, specifically whether or not they were likely to behave immorally while espousing intolerance for the behavior of others. In each of five experiments the method of inducing a powerful feeling, and the method of determining these double standards was different, but in every one the results were the same. Powerful people judge others more harshly but cheat more themselves. But what’s especially interesting is his last experiment where distinguishing between legitimate power and illegitimate power garnered the opposite results.
The first experiment was meant to determine the discrepancy between the subject’s expressed standards and their actual behavior. As in previous experiments subjects were randomly assigned to a high-power or low-power class. To induce these feelings “high-power” subjects were asked by experimenters to recall an experience where they felt a sense of power. Meanwhile, “low-power” subjects were asked by experimenters to recall an experience where they felt powerless. Then each subject was asked to rate how egregious a moral infraction they considered cheating, and they were given an opportunity to cheat at dice. They were promised some number of lottery tickets equal to the roll of two dice, and then allowed to self report their roll. The high-power subjects reported considering cheating a higher moral infraction than low-power subjects, but were also more likely to cheat themselves.
In the second experiment participants were made to conduct a mock-government with half randomly given high-power roles which give orders and half randomly given low-power roles which take orders. Then each group was asked about their feelings about minor common traffic violations, such as speeding, or rolling through stop signs. As expected, high-power subjects were more likely to give themselves permission to the bend the rules if they were running late for an important meeting, but less likely to afford other drivers the same leniency.
In the third experiment participants were divided as in the first experiment, by either recalling a personal experience where they felt powerful or powerless. Then each group was asked about their feelings about minor common tax evasions, such as not declaring freelance income on your taxes. As expected, high-power subjects were more likely to bend the rules for themselves, but less likely to afford others the same leniency.
In the fourth experiment the sense of power was manipulated in a very unusual way. All participants were asked to fill out a series of word puzzles. Half the participants were randomly given word searches that contained high-power words, such as “authority” and half were randomly given word searches that contained low-power words, such as “subjugation.” Then all participants were asked about their feelings about keeping a stolen bike that was found abandoned in the road. As in all experiments, even with such a minor insignificant power disparity, those in the high-power group were more likely to say they would keep the bike, but also that others had an obligation to seek out the rightful owner, or turn the bike over to the police.
The fifth and final experiment yielded, by far, the most interesting results of all the experiments we’ve discussed, and it is my hope that this is the direction that this type or research takes in the future. The feeling of power was induced the same as the first and third experiment, where participants were asked to describe their own experience of power in their own life, with one important distinction. In this experiment the “high-power” class was divided into two, one group which was asked to describe an experience where they felt their power was legitimate and deserved, and one group which was asked to describe an experience where they felt their power was illegitimate and undeserved.
The hypocrisy results found in the previous four experiments emerged only when high-power subjects viewed their power as legitimate. Those who viewed their power as illegitimate actually gave the opposite results, a sort of anti-hypocrisy, which researches dubbed, “hypercrisy.” They were harsher about their own transgressions, and more lenient toward others.
This discovery could be the silver bullet that society has been searching for to put down the werewolf of political corruption. The researches speculate that the vicious cycle of power and hypocrisy could be broken by attacking the legitimacy of power, rather than the power itself. As they write in their conclusion:
A question that lies at the heart of the social sciences is how this status-quo (power inequality) is defended and how the powerless come to accept their disadvantaged position. The typical answer is that the state and its rules, regulations, and monopoly on violence coerce the powerless to do so. But this cannot be the whole answer…
Our last experiment found that the spiral of inequality can be broken, if the illegitimacy of the power-distribution is revealed. One way to undermine the legitimacy of authority is open revolt, but a more subtle way in which the powerless might curb selfenrichment by the powerful is by tainting their reputation, for example by gossiping. If the powerful sense that their unrestrained selfenrichment leads to gossiping, derision, and the undermining of their reputation as conscientious leaders, then they may be inspired to bring their behavior back to their espoused standards. If they fail to do so, they may quickly lose their authority, reputation, and— eventually—their power.
In this series we have seen that those given power are more likely to lie, cheat and steal with impunity while also being harsher in their judgements of others for doing these things. We have seen that those given power feel less compassion for the suffering of others, and are even capable of the torture and murder of innocent people. What’s perhaps most disturbing is that we have seen that these sociopathic tendencies have been fostered in otherwise psychelogically healthy people. In other words, the problem is not only that sociopaths are drawn to positions of authority, but that positions of authority draw out the sociopath in everyone. But this final experiment offers some hope that authoritarian sociopathy can not only be stopped, but driven into reverse, not by violence or revolution, but simply by undermining their sense of legitimacy.