The Economist reviews an interesting new study that investigates the immorality of power:
In their first study, Dr Lammers and Dr Galinsky asked 61 university students to write about a moment in their past when they were in a position of high or low power. Previous research has established that this is an effective way to “prime” people into feeling as if they are currently in such a position. Each group (high power and low power) was then split into two further groups. Half were asked to rate, on a nine-point morality scale (with one being highly immoral and nine being highly moral), how objectionable it would be for other people to over-report travel expenses at work. The other half were asked to participate in a game of dice.
The dice players were told to roll two ten-sided dice (one for “tens” and one for “units”) in the privacy of an isolated cubicle, and report the results to a lab assistant. The number they rolled, which would be a value between one and 100 (two zeros), would determine the number of tickets that they would be given in a small lottery that was run at the end of the study.
In the case of the travel expenses–when the question hung on the behaviour of others–participants in the high-power group reckoned, on average, that over-reporting rated as a 5.8 on the nine-point scale. Low-power participants rated it 7.2. The powerful, in other words, claimed to favour the moral course. In the dice game, however, high-power participants reported, on average, that they had rolled 70 while low-power individuals reported an average 59. Though the low-power people were probably cheating a bit (the expected average score would be 50), the high-power volunteers were undoubtedly cheating–perhaps taking the term “high roller” rather too literally.
The scientists argue that power is corrupting because it leads to moral hypocrisy. Although we almost always know what the right thing to do is – cheating at dice is a sin – power makes it easier to justify the wrongdoing, as we rationalize away our moral mistake. For instance, when Lammers and Galinsky asked the subjects (in both low and high-power conditions) how they would judge an individual who drove too fast when late for an appointment, or whether it was acceptable to cheat on the income tax, people with power consistently said it was worse when others committed those crimes than when they did. In other words, the powerful people believe they had a good reason for speeding – they’re important people, with important things to do – but everyone else should follow the posted signs. We become the exception to the rule, which is the law.
The real question, of course, is what causes this blatant hypocrisy. One possibility is that power makes us less sensitive to the needs and feelings of others – it silences our empathy – and so we only think about our own motivations and needs. Adam Smith, the 18th century philosopher, was the first modern thinker to emphasize the importance of empathy in shaping morality. “As we have no immediate experience of what other men feel,” Smith wrote, “we can form no idea of the manner in which they are affected, but by conceiving what we ourselves should feel in the like situation.” This mirroring process leads to an instinctive sympathy for our fellow man⎯Smith called it “fellow-feeling”⎯which formed the basis for our moral decisions.
Smith was right. Just look at the ultimatum game. In this simple experimental task, an experimenter pairs two people together, and hands one of them $10. This person (the proposer) gets to decide how the ten dollars is divided. The second person (the responder) can either accept the offer, allowing both players to pocket their respective shares, or reject the offer, in which case both players walk away empty-handed.
When economists first started playing this game in the early 1980’s, they assumed that this elementary exchange would always generate the same outcome. The proposer would offer the responder approximately $1⎯a minimal amount⎯and the responder would accept it. After all, $1 is better than nothing, and a rejection leaves both players worse off. Such an outcome would be a clear demonstration of our innate selfishness and rationality.
However, the researchers soon realized that their predictions were all wrong. Instead of swallowing their pride and pocketing a small profit, responders typically rejected any offer they perceived as unfair. Furthermore, proposers anticipated this angry rejection and typically tendered an offer around $4.
Why are most people so generous? The answer returns us to the “fellow-feeling” described by Smith: proposers make fair offers in the ultimatum game is because they are able to imagine how the responder will feel if they make an unfair offer. (When people play the game with computers, they are never generous.) They know that a lowball proposal will make the other person angry, which will lead them to reject the offer, which will leave everybody with nothing. So the proposers suppress their greed, and equitably split the ten dollars. (When people are given oxytocin, a hormone released during childbirth and during moments of social bonding, they make offers that are nearly 80 percent more equitable than normal.) This ability to sympathize with the feelings of others leads to fairness.
Unfortunately, states of power seem to induce a temporary state of mindblindness, so that our sympathetic instincts are repressed. A simple variation on the ultimatum game known as the dictator game makes this clear. Unlike the ultimatum game, in which the responder can decide whether or not to accept the monetary offer, in the dictator game, the proposer simply dictates how much the responder receives. (In other words, they have absolute power.) What’s surprising is that these petit tyrants are still rather generous, and give away about one-third of the total amount of money. Even when people have power, they remain mostly constrained by their sympathetic instincts.
However, it only takes one minor alteration for this benevolence to disappear. When the dictator cannot see the responder⎯the two players are located in separate rooms⎯the dictator lapses into unfettered greed. Instead of giving away a significant share of the profits, the despots start offering mere pennies, and pocketing the rest. Once we become socially isolated, we stop simulating the feelings of other people.* As a result, our inner Machiavelli takes over, and our sense of sympathy is squashed by selfishness. The UC Berkeley psychologist Dacher Keltner has found that, in many social situations, people with power act just like patients with severe brain damage. “The experience of power might be thought of as having someone open up your skull and take out that part of your brain so critical to empathy and socially-appropriate behavior,” he writes. “You become very impulsive and insensitive, which is a bad combination.”
Of course, we live in an age when our most powerful people – they tend to also have lots of money – are also the most isolated. They live in gated communities with private drivers. They eat at different restaurants and stay at different resorts. They wear different clothes and skip the security lines at airports, before sitting at the front of the plane. We shouldn’t be surprised that they’re also assholes.
*I think this helps explain the public preference for politicians with ordinary preferences, or why Scott Brown kept on talking about his truck. And it also justifies Obama insistence on not becoming informationally isolated, whether that’s by reading ten letters from constituents every day or following a variety of blogs.