Powerful People And Moral Decisions: Do Powerful People Think Differently About Morality?

Does power corrupt? This is a common saying, and it is often brought up when people with power in our society do something immoral. For example, it comes up when well-known politicians are caught in corruption scandals, or when rich people use bribes to get their children into a good university. But if power corrupts, how does it do that? In general, power influences how people think, so it is likely that power also influences moral thinking in particular. So, my colleagues and I studied how power influences moral thinking.

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We focused on four moral thinking styles that influence moral decisions. Some people deliberate about moral decisions and try to find a pragmatic solution. Other people follow moral rules (such as “do not kill”) without thinking much about moral decisions. Some people make their moral decisions based on their emotional reactions. And some people base their moral decisions both on their emotional reactions and on their deliberations, by integrating them. Often, people also engage in some mix of these moral thinking styles.

We conducted two experiments in which we examined how power influences these moral thinking styles. In these experiments, we gave some participants more power and some participants less power. Contrasting to the idea that power corrupts, we found that people with more power engaged in more of three moral thinking styles than people with less power. Compared to people with less power, people with more power deliberated more, they followed moral rules more, and they integrated their emotional reactions more with their deliberations. They did not follow their emotional reactions more or less than people without power.

These first two studies provided some evidence that power leads to increases in moral thinking. But of course, moral thinking is just a first step. People with power often make important moral decisions, be it politicians, CEOs, or managers. So perhaps it is more interesting how the moral thinking of people with power translates to actual moral decisions. We examined this in two more studies, in which we used moral dilemmas. Researchers often use such moral dilemmas to measure moral decisions.

You might have heard of the most famous moral dilemma, the trolley dilemma: A trolley is running on a track toward five people. If nothing happens, these five people will die, and you are the only one that can do something. What you can do is the following: You are standing next to a switch, and if you flip the switch, the trolley will go onto another track. However, on this track, there is another person. If you flip the switch, this person will die. If you do not flip the switch, five people will die. What would you do?

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Have you made a decision? Maybe you think that flipping the switch will kill the person on the other track, and killing a person is morally wrong. So you have decided that you would not flip the switch. Researchers call this the deontological decision. It is named after deontological ethics, which judge the morality of a decision by evaluating whether the decision follows or breaks moral rules. But maybe you think that flipping the switch will lead to one death, but it will save five people, and one person dying is more moral than five people dying. So you have decided that you would flip the switch. Researchers call this the utilitarian decision. It is named after utilitarian ethics, which judges the morality of a decision by evaluating whether the decision contributes to the greater good.

The four moral thinking styles, which we examined in the first two studies, influence decisions in such moral dilemmas. For example, people who deliberate more about moral dilemmas are more likely to make utilitarian decisions, that is, to flip the switch in the example of the trolley dilemma. In contrast to that, people who follow moral rules more are less likely to make utilitarian decisions. So how does having power influence decisions in moral dilemmas, and what role do moral thinking styles play in this?

We investigated this in two studies. In contrast to the first two studies, we asked people how powerful they felt. We also measured how much they engaged in the four moral thinking styles. Finally, the participants also made decisions for a range of moral dilemmas. Similar to the first two studies, people who felt more powerful engaged more in three moral thinking styles. These were the same as in the previous two studies: Powerful people deliberated more about moral decisions, followed rules more, and integrated their emotions with their deliberations more. Importantly, though, powerful people did not differ in the decisions they made in moral dilemmas. This was an interesting and somewhat unexpected finding, as moral thinking styles usually influence moral dilemma decisions. Because powerful people differed in their moral thinking styles, we expected differences in dilemma decisions as well.

So, why did powerful people not differ in their decisions in moral dilemmas? To answer this question, we looked more closely at the relationship between power, moral thinking styles, and dilemma decisions. What we found was the following: People with more power engage in more moral thinking styles, but these moral thinking styles cancel each other out. For example, powerful people deliberate more about their decisions, so they should be more likely to make utilitarian decisions (such as, for the greater good, flipping the switch in the trolley dilemma described above). But powerful people also follow moral rules more, so they should be less likely to make utilitarian decisions. What this means is that for powerful people, there are likely stronger opposing influences on their moral decisions. But their decisions remain the same.

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To sum up, we find that power does not corrupt – at least not with regard to moral thinking. The opposite seems to be true, as we find that powerful people engage more in different moral thinking styles. Therefore, it is likely that powerful people have stronger, opposing influences on their decisions in moral dilemmas. But – most importantly – their decisions usually do not differ from people with less power.

These findings are described in the article entitled Paradoxical Effects of Power on Moral Thinking: Why Power Both Increases and Decreases Deontological and Utilitarian Moral Decisions, recently published in the journal Social Psychological and Personality Science.

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