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Powerful People Are Sensitive to Unfairness—If They're the Victims

Injustices to other people don't capture their attention quite as quickly.
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Wall St. in New York City, New York. (Photo: Robert Crum/Shutterstock)

Wall St. in New York City, New York. (Photo: Robert Crum/Shutterstock)

It's a perplexing phenomenon. Powerful people, such as Wall Street bankers, will react quickly and loudly to any perceived slights, while less-powerful ones let things slide—at least until the affronts they suffer become so egregious that they spark a riot.

Why do instances of unfairness produce such disparate reactions? Newly published research suggests a deep-seated psychological phenomenon provides at least part of the answer.

It finds people who perceive themselves as powerful are faster to detect injustice—but only in situations where they are the apparent victims.

This "may be one important mechanism by which hierarchies are maintained," writes a research team led by Stanford University psychologist Takuya Sawaoka. "Powerful people's greater sensitivity to unfairness against (themselves) may allow them to react more quickly against unfair treatment, and maintain their hold on power."

"We suggest that because powerful people more strongly expect to receive fair outcomes, they are faster to perceive unfair situations that violate those expectations."

Sawaoka and his colleagues demonstrate this dynamic in a series of four experiments, which they describe in the journal Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin. In the first, 227 people recruited online were asked to write about either "a time when they had power over someone else," or "a time in which someone else had power over them."

Each then watched "a series of trials in which money (represented as coins) was distributed between three individuals." One version of this exercise was rigged in favor of the study participant, who received more money than the other two players in 12 of 16 trials.

The other was rigged in the opposite direction, with the participant receiving less money than the other two players 12 out of 16 times. Whichever group they found themselves in, participants were instructed to rate each distribution of coins as either  "fair" or "unfair."

The researchers found that those who had been thinking of themselves as powerful "were faster to perceive unfair monetary distributions in which they received less money than others." Importantly, they were not "more attentive to unfairness overall," but only to "indications that they themselves are victims."

"We suggest that because powerful people more strongly expect to receive fair outcomes, they are faster to perceive unfair situations that violate those expectations," the researchers write.

A second study, featuring 265 people recruited online, was similarly structured, except that participants (a) either wrote about a situation where they felt powerful, or a neutral situation, and (b) had no stake in the online monetary distributions. One group of participants observed a version of the exercise that was clearly unfair, with one player receiving less money than the other two 12 out of 16 times.

People in that group who thought of themselves as powerful were slower to note the unfairness of the transactions. This suggests power may dull one's sensitivity to unfairness that doesn't directly impact oneself.

Another study found that "when assigned to an employer who unfairly disadvantaged participants, individuals primed with high power switched to another employer more quickly." This suggests they are not only faster to notice when they're being treated unfairly, but also "more likely to act against this victimization."

This is one way power perpetuates itself: It creates a sense of entitlement that makes one unusually sensitive to unfair treatment, and quicker to demand redress. Further research will be needed to determine whether this dynamic applies not only to actual injustices, but also faux offenses stoked by favor-seeking politicians or ideologically driven media outlets.

So don't blame those bankers for their seemingly absurd overreactions to the threat of increased regulation. They're simply acting instinctively, displaying their power-induced, hair-trigger reactions to possible instances of victimization.

Perhaps the rest of us need to cultivate ways of feeling powerful so that we, too, spontaneously stand up for ourselves when injustices inevitably occur.

Findings is a daily column by Pacific Standard staff writer Tom Jacobs, who scours the psychological-research journals to discover new insights into human behavior, ranging from the origins of our political beliefs to the cultivation of creativity.