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 manâ¯Smith called it "fellow-feeling"â¯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 $1â¯a minimal amountâ¯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 responderâ¯the two players are located in separate roomsâ¯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.


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Interesting research spotlight. Looks like it could be used to help illuminate the communication errs of physicians. We so often give them innumerable powers and respect in our society, but in the workplace (especially the hospital) they are so isolated from other members of the healthcare team, physically etc. For those that don't know, there exists a huge communication barrier between many doctors and other staff, which inevitably results in a decrease in the quality of patient care or worse, an error. They are not always at fault, but the role of power in any professional communication plays a part. Power corrupts, it's not a new concept, but to see it confounded by isolation is interesting.


Just finished "How We Decide". Wonderful book. Great examples (the pilot, focus groups, Binger, choosing a car, The Family) Maybe the phrase "I'll sleep on it!" fits in. I know when I have a hard time on a problem or decision, I often hit the shower, and POW!, it hits me. Have also read Kendel's book on snails, and watching Charlie Rose/Eric Kendel Brain series all great stuff on how the brain's mirroring cells and other mechanism support our social being. The above research on power seems like it might apply most fittingly, I know this is dangerous, to "The Family", where they excuse what most of us would say is "iffy" moral behavior exactly because they are too important. Illusions of grandiosity would fit. Larry Wilson

Interesting article. It, perhaps, sheds light on Tiger Woods' trangressions. Not that it makes him a sympathetic figure, but it might just provide others of his ilk, not to mention even the ordinary person, with a plan for avoiding the type of mistake from which one can never fully recover.

"The greater the power, the more dangerous the abuse."
Edmund Burke
House of Commons

By OftenWrongTed (not verified) on 25 Jan 2010 #permalink

Smith based 'Theory of Moral Sentiments' and its discussion of empathy on the work of Hume.

I wonder how this insight bodes for our democracy? It seems that in the age of cable television and political blogs, people are increasingly isolating themselves from those who don't share their views. Furthermore, the echo chamber only exacerbates our inability to experience "fellow-feeling."

Without an ability to empathize or relate to others--especially those who have beliefs we don't share--we begin to lose our common humanity.

This helps explain why bipolar people, when in their manic or hypomanic stage, are often insensitive and emotionally abusive to their loved ones.

By DeborahInLA (not verified) on 26 Jan 2010 #permalink

When one links to the Economist story and reads it, there are some interesting media spins included. Here is the last paragraph:

"What explains hypercrisy is less obvious. It is known, though, from experiments on other species that if those at the bottom of a dominance hierarchy show signs of getting uppity, those at the top react both quickly and aggressively. Hypercrisy might thus be a signal of submissivenessâone that is exaggerated in creatures that feel themselves to be in the wrong place in the hierarchy. By applying reverse privileges to themselves, they hope to escape punishment from the real dominants. Perhaps the lesson, then, is that corruption and hypocrisy are the price that societies pay for being led by alpha males (and, in some cases, alpha females). The alternative, though cleaner, is leadership by wimps."

The last line is particularly striking in that it jumps into either or thinking and does not map well onto the distribution of attitudes and people in the real world. The direct implication that hyper ethical people are wimps should be insulting to anyone who believes that they are ethical, even if they are not. It may also have something to do with perceived cost of being ethical. Afterall, isn't it generally more difficult to toe the line than to cheat if you believe you can get away with it. So which is really the wimp? Also, the thinking might be - those with more can more easily afford to be honest and to to respect the laws they are largely responsible for enacting.

Also mapping other primate's behavior onto the conditions of this study seem ill-considered since the study in question was done with humans. There is a significant size difference in social structures between the two for one thing, and scale is an often overlooked significant factor. Scale allows for much of the insulation that blocks empathy.

I wonder, if the Economist magazine itself, is guilty of some abuse of power in its reporting even if not intentional.

I guess that's why its so easy for cops to stroll through a red light for no reason and with no sirens on. Empathy is out of range between two cars. Makes it easier to break the rules they enforce.

I like the 'ultimatum game' analogy but I think it suffers in one respect. The amount of real power in that game is fixed and shared by both the proposer and the responder. That's why you get a more or less even distribution of profits. Give the proposer more power in the game and he'll take more of the profits (whether or not he's in the same room as the responder).

The problem with the localization of power is not social isolationism but a diminished ability to apply some recourse on the part of the responder.

I hypothesize that these related phenomena have an evolutionary origin. One's time at the top of the social ranking comes with increased reproductive power and is inevitably finite. It would be to an individual's reproductive advantage to take advantage of such limited opportunities and be uninhibited from feeling sorry for the "evolutionary losers." I'm thinking of a scenario in which a war hero returns, sees a receptive woman who also happens to be his friend's wife... It also makes sense that one with power should demand a higher level of morality from others since rule-obeying solidifies the current power structure in a social group.

By Brandon Hidaka (not verified) on 01 Feb 2010 #permalink

I liked the article, but why did you end it with profane language? That part seems unprofessional. I would have liked to forward this to friends.

Amen, #15. Maybe the profanity indicates isolation from professional discourse? Or exemption from etiquette?

"However, it only takes one minor alteration for this benevolence to disappear.."
And as Obama won't see any of our faces while reading those letters..

By rijkswaanvijand (not verified) on 02 Feb 2010 #permalink

It's just occurred to me that I read every single comment on this article and none of them enraged me with their stupidity. I usually try not to read comments on any internet articles for that reason. Congratulations, commentors.

By Some guy on th… (not verified) on 17 Mar 2010 #permalink

I followed the link to Dacher Keltner's article on power and found it quite disappointing. I am sure Prof. Keltner has plenty of research under his belt, far more than I do, but his understanding of Machiavelli and his seeming naivite about the exercise of political power is somewhat surprising.

Keltner's understanding of Machiavelli demonstrates little more than a reading of the dust jacket of The Prince and shows no comprehension of Machiavelli's goal of creating a more peaceful society at a time when violence was so prevalent.

Keltner also seems to ignore that the very exercise of power he brands as unscientific is exactly what leaders have used successfully for the history of humanity. If it were so unscientific, it wouldn't have thrived so long. He makes several useful insights regarding the need to demonstrate social intelligence, but he ignores how ruthless behavior often protects either a person or a people from external threats and even attracts adherents to whichever ideology the socially obtuse leader is promoting.

By Gopherus Agassizii (not verified) on 24 Mar 2010 #permalink

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