Is That Behavior Ethical? The Powerful Have a Different Perspective

Power tends to bend a person's moral outlook, making one less likely to believe bending the rules is acceptable behavior.

Are rules made to be broken — or obeyed? Newly published research suggests your answer to that question depends largely upon whether you are mulling it over from a position of power.

“In determining whether an act is right or wrong, the powerful focus on whether rules and principles are violated, whereas the powerless focus on the consequences,” states the study “How Power Influences Moral Thinking,” in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. “For this reason, the powerful are also more inclined to stick to the rules — irrespective of whether this has positive or negative effects — while the powerless are more inclined to make exceptions.”

Joris Lammers and Diederik Stapel of Tilburg University in the Netherlands conducted a series of five experiments to test the idea that being in a position of power changes one’s “style of moral thinking.” In the first test, they “primed” a group of 69 university students by having them focus on words evoking either control and authority or dependence and powerlessness. All were then asked to appraise a specific ethical dilemma involving whether a high school girl should break a promise made to a friend.

The result: Those who were pre-programmed to think in terms of having power “had a stronger preference for the rule-based moral considerations, compared to participants in the low-power condition, who had a stronger preference for the outcome-based moral considerations.”

In another test, 50 students were assigned to play the role of either manager or employee of a fictional company. “Participants were presented with two reward systems, of which one was outcome-based and another rule-based, and were asked to indicate which of the two criteria they thought was the fairest.”

The “managers” were more inclined to vote for the rules-based criterion, while the “employees” were more likely to contend that the ultimate results of a worker’s efforts were more important than whether they strictly followed company guidelines.

The researchers did find one exception to this pattern. In a final test, which was constructed so that rule-based thinking would not work to the advantage of the powerful, participants in the high-power category were less inclined than their low-power counterparts to endorse playing by the rules. Self-interest apparently trumps abstract ethical concepts.

It’s easy to react cynically to these results. If you rose to a position of power by following the rules, it makes sense that you would consider those guidelines inherently good and important. (Alternatively, if you got to the top by breaking the rules, it is in your interest to ensure that others don’t follow in your footsteps.)

Lammers and Stapel put it more delicately, noting that “rule-based thinking is attractive to the powerful because stability is in their interest and, therefore, cognitively appealing.” They also call attention to previous research suggesting powerful people tend to focus on the big picture rather than small details (which some researchers believe is one reason they successfully move up the ladder). This predisposition could presumably lead them to favor a stable, rule-based system over one that makes exceptions.

Whatever the reasons for the phenomenon, the realization that a person’s relative level of power influences moral thinking is a valuable one. As the researchers note, many conflicts are between individuals with different levels of power: employer/employee, teacher/student, traffic cop/driver, etc.

In such cases, they write, “high-power parties may appear rigid and unbending to low-power parties. At the same time, low-power parties may appear irresponsible and too much focused on immediate implications in the eyes of the powerful.” The result can be two people talking past one another, while each claims the moral high ground.

Lammers and Stapel assert that mediators and others charged with settling disputes “can profit from this insight” by taking both moral approaches into account. “A compromise will probably be most acceptable to both parties if it combines both outcome- and rule-based elements,” they write. “That is, it should be framed to both follow general principles, and have a positive outcome for the parties involved.”

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