It just so happens that a handful of politicians were publicly making Adam Galinsky's point as he and two social psychology colleagues were studying the interplay of power and moral hypocrisy. Former New York Gov. Eliot Spitzer was caught with a prostitute after pursuing the very same crime as a prosecutor himself. Nevada Sen. John Ensign was caught in an affair violating the very family values he preached.
And South Carolina Gov. Mark Sanford was snared in the ultimate irony — committing the same sin he had decried in Bill Clinton (not to mention misusing state resources in the process when he wouldn't take stimulus funds for his state).
Each of these stories — along with bailed-out car execs traveling by private plane or Wall Street bankers begging aid for themselves but not their customers — reinforce our most frequent gripe against the powerful: They're hypocrites.
At least now we can take comfort in knowing this is more than just political kvetching. It's scientifically true.
"A lot of what social psychology science does is test a lot of common-sense clichés to determine whether they're true or not," said Galinsky, a social psychologist at Northwestern's Kellogg School of Management.
According to new research to be published in the journal Psychological Science, it turns out power does make people more morally hypocritical. Galinsky and colleagues Joris Lammers and Diederik A. Stapel at Tilburg University in the Netherlands ran a series of five experiments with Dutch students that produced some unflattering conclusions. (For more on Lammers and Stapel's work on the perspectives of the powerful, see this piece from last year.)
The powerful are more likely to cheat. They're more likely to strictly judge others' transgressions while going soft on themselves. And the powerless often react in the opposite way, more harshly judging themselves than they do others — a phenomenon the researchers have coined "hypercrisy."
"One of the reasons that occurs is that the powerful are less dependent on other people; they're able sort of to act on their own accord," Galinsky said. "Another reason why cheating occurs is that, although more eyes are directed toward the powerful, they psychologically feel invisible."
That feeling, the researchers posit, derives from the sense of entitlement that comes with power — the entitlement to set norms for others or to control their enforcement (think, in another sense, of judges, teachers and police officers). On the other hand, feelings of power, the researchers write, "reduce sensitivity to social disapproval."
The studies manipulated power among the students in three different ways: by assigning high- and low-power roles in a government scenario, by asking them to recall a time when they either had or lacked power, or by exposing them to associated words like "influence," "control" and "subordination." They also tested multiple moral dilemmas: over-reporting travel expenses, skimping on taxes, breaking traffic rules and returning (or not) a stolen bicycle.
The final experiment found that moral hypocrisy is tied not just to the existence of power, but also to whether or not that power is legitimate. Among people who felt their power was illegitimate, who were disconnected from any sense of entitlement, all of the above trends toward hypocrisy disappeared - a central finding to the study's implications.
The ability to judge others is a kind of mechanism, Galinsky argues, that allows the powerful to retain their power. The powerless collaborate in this system — compounding social inequality — when they accept harsher judgments for themselves than they do their leaders. This cycle only breaks down when the legitimacy of power is called into question, as, for example, occurred with Eliot Spitzer, who ultimately had to give up his job.
"One of the next steps," Galinsky said, "is this does raise a really important question about when do people notice this hypocrisy and have a violent reaction?"
For a real-life case study illustrating that point, look no further than Iran.
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