Does Power Breed Hypocrisy?

It seems every few weeks a new story hits the headlines exposing a politician for some misstep in his personal life that contradicts the “family values” campaign on which he was elected.  Perplexed by these double standards, a team of professors from the Netherlands and Illinois conducted a series of five experiments and found that when everyday people are put into positions of power, they are prone to increased moral hypocrisy.

The five experiments the professors devised ran through different morality-testing scenarios such as stealing a bicycle and evading taxes.  Each scenario led to a common conclusion: while leaders hold their followers to high standards, they are not nearly as strict when it comes to their own personal behavior. The participants assigned the most powerful status indicated they would look down on others the most for fudging numbers for financial gain. Participants were told that for helping with the experiment, they could enter a lottery to win a prize. Participants privately rolled dice to determine the number of lottery tickets they would win (more tickets, more chances to win). The high-power participants also won the highest number of lottery tickets, indicating that they in fact cheated to gain more lottery tickets. Meaning the high-power participants judged others harshly for cheating, and then turned around and cheated themselves.

Another interesting result came from fifth experiment in the research study, wherein the subjects indicated their own power status as well as whether they deserved this position of power.  The powerful individuals who genuinely believed they earned their status by far exhibited the most moral hypocrisy.  Psychology Today offers two possible explanations for this phenomenon.  First, leaders can “delude themselves that they are working for the greater good” and consequently make exceptions for themselves. Second, politicians recognize that they are able to get away with misdeeds, so they opt to take advantage of their position’s privileges.
Fear of losing power could be the key to keeping the powerful honest. The researchers found the only way to force a person of power to be honest was if “if the powerful sense that their unrestrained self-enrichment leads to gossiping, derision, and the undermining of their reputation.”
Why are people more likely to cut themselves some slack when they are in a leadership position? Perhaps, nothing reminds your ego how powerful you are than when you break the rules.

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