Does Power Make You Less Moral?

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You might not expect a website named to provide lucid commentary on scientific research of human behavior, but Cracked's Kathy Benjamin does just that in an interesting (and photo-heavy) essay. Benjamin argues, citing a number of scientific studies, that power has a warping effect on the psychology of those who wield it. Becoming more powerful, according to Benjamin's article, makes you also become less moral.

Benjamin cites five behavior-changing affects associated with power, each backed up with a scientific study or two. But probably the two most compelling are indifference to others and dishonesty.

  • Power Makes You Care Less About People  Benjamin cites a study, reported in the journal Psychological Science, in which "the researchers actually surveyed subjects about how powerful they felt in their own lives. Then they were divided into powerful and powerless based on their answers. The subjects were then paired up, and one was told to relay an emotionally scarring event that had happened to him. The listener was hooked up to an ECG machine, and all of his stress responses were measured. ... The powerless people reacted the way you'd expect people would react when told a heart-wrenching tale. The powerful, on the other hand, felt nothing. ... This seems to indicate what we had always suspected -- that while politicians may pander to you by kissing your baby, they might as well be kissing a can of Beanee Weenees. The guy who stole your wallet at the laundromat will probably remember your name longer than they will."
  • Power Makes You Less Honest  This time, Benjamin finds a study from the Columbia Business School, which set up a "role playing" experiment to test how power affected honesty and greed.
[The experiment] divided subjects into leaders and subordinates. Leaders were even given a fancy, large office; the underlings got a small, windowless room. All of them were then tempted to lie (they found a $100 bill and were put in a situation where they'd have to lie about it to the people running the experiment if they wanted to keep it).

After a nice round of vigorous lying, both groups of subjects were tested for stress hormone levels. Researchers also studied a video-tape of the subjects lying their asses off. The result, in their words:

"Low-power individuals showed the expected emotional, cognitive, physiological, and behavioral signs of deception; in contrast, powerful people demonstrated no evidence of lying across emotion, cognition, physiology, or behavior."

Once more, that's after a couple of hours of completely fake power. These people were chosen at random, but when they were stuffed into a fancy room that made them feel like big-shots, their feelings of guilt about lying melted away.

And that made them better liars.

Read all five effects power has on your morality here.

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.