Psychologists: Those in power more apt to 'moral hypocrisy'

Sharon Jayson

The moral compass of some public figures clearly went awry in 2009. Now new research better explains why some in the public eye don't think like the rest of us.

Power increases "moral hypocrisy," says Adam Galinsky, a behavioral psychologist at the Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University in Evanston, Ill., and co-author of a study published today in the journal Psychological Science.

NARCISSISM: It can make politicians leaders ... and cheaters

Power does indeed go to your head, making those in the limelight such as celebrities, politicians, CEOs and athletes more prone to a double standard: They're stricter in their moral judgment of others but are more lenient about their own behavior, the study suggests.

"We gave people the opportunity to cheat, and those in a position of power were more likely to cheat," says Galinsky, who conducted the study with researchers from Tilburg University in the Netherlands.

A rogues' gallery

Among the once-powerful who fell from grace this year amid what Galinsky calls moral hypocrisy are former Illinois governor Rod Blagojevich, South Carolina Gov. Mark Sanford and U.S. Sen. John Ensign of Nevada, with assorted violations of extramarital affairs or suspected misuse of public funds. Last year, those figures included the auto executives who flew in private jets while their companies cut employee benefits, and politicians, including John Edwards and Eliot Spitzer, who didn't follow the values they espoused.

"It's interesting to think about people in power and why they end up in scandals," says Joe Magee of New York University's Wagner Graduate School of Public Service. "In their minds, they're not being brazen. They forget there are rules governing what they do. They're just pursuing their own desires."

Feeling entitled

Magee and Galinsky are among a group of researchers across the country who, in the past decade, have focused attention on moral behavior, power and status.

"Power makes you kind of impulsive and self-serving and occasionally greedy," says psychologist Dacher Keltner of the University of California-Berkeley. "We hold up people in positions of power to exacting standards. They should be more moral agents, when in fact, they are the opposite."

Jennifer Overbeck of the Marshall School of Business at the University of Southern California-Los Angeles says her studies have found that ordinary people change when put in powerful position: "Just putting them in a position of power leads them to pursue their self-interest and things that they perceive are useful to them."

In the new study, researchers conducted five experiments with about 350 subjects. They found that giving people power makes them feel entitled and causes a disconnect in their judgment. Those in high-power positions tend to judge morality of others while not practicing what they preach, Galinsky says. "If they want to impose strict standards on others while violating those standards themselves, that's when they become a hypocrite," he says.

David DeSteno, a psychologist at Northeastern University in Boston, says his research has shown that "the potential for hypocrisy is in all of us."

"What you see is the same action: 'It's OK if I do it. but not if you do it,' " he says.


© Copyright 2009, USA TODAY, a division of Gannett Co., Inc.



Health topic page on womens health Womens health our team of physicians Womens health breast cancer lumps heart disease Womens health information covers breast Cancer heart pregnancy womens cosmetic concerns Sexual health and mature women related conditions Facts on womens health female anatomy Womens general health and wellness The female reproductive system female hormones Diseases more common in women The mature woman post menopause Womens health dedicated to the best healthcare
buy viagra online