Yevgenia Nayberg

Power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely. So the saying goes. And previous research supports this conclusion to a large extent, showing that those in power are more likely to act unethically.

But Derek Rucker, a professor of marketing at Kellogg School of Management, asked a simple question that challenged this fundamental premise: Does it matter if the person is lying to benefit himself or someone else?

It turns out the answer is yes, very much so.

Along with collaborators Adam Galinsky, formerly a Kellogg School professor who is now at Columbia University, and David Dubois, a Kellogg graduate who is now a faculty member at INSEAD, Rucker conducted a series of experiments to test this premise. In support of the prior literature, they found that people high in social class were indeed more likely to lie or act otherwise unethically when that lie benefited them. But the twist is that those at the other end of the social scale are not blameless. They are more likely to behave unethically when the lie benefits someone else.

“It’s not as simple as we thought,” Rucker says. “Both high- and low-social-class individuals will behave unethically.”

Rucker’s study is the first that separates out unethical behavior from selfish behavior. By doing that, he was able to see a distinct pattern in the unethical behavior of those high and low in social status.

The difference was not the degree to which people consider behavior to be unethical—participants at both ends of the status scale found the researchers’ hypothetical questions equally unethical regardless of the beneficiary. For example, not pointing out that a professor erred in marking several answers correct on your final exam versus on a friend’s final exam is equally problematic, participants said.

“Everyone agreed that these are unethical behaviors,” Rucker says. “You are telling a lie or you’re not, and participants view this as devious regardless of whether you are doing it for yourself or for a friend.”

Keep the Change

Say you just spent 10 minutes in line at a busy Starbucks to buy a coffee and muffin. You pay with a $10 bill and are a couple blocks away before you realize the clerk gave you change for a $20 by mistake. Do you go back to return the extra change? Does it make a difference if you bought the snack for yourself or were using money a friend gave you to buy the goodies for her, meaning the extra change would be hers?

Rucker and his colleagues asked this question and seven other similarly ambiguous ones of residents of a large European city who were randomly approached by researchers to answer a short survey. The eight scenarios were identical for all participants, except that the unethical behavior was described in a way that either benefited themselves (they got to pocket that extra $10) or someone else (their friend got the cash). The participants were also asked about their income to gauge social class.

The results showed that the higher-income participants were more likely to commit unethical behaviors when they would benefit, while the less affluent said they would do so when they were benefiting someone else.

“It opens up that question for people as they start examining unethical behavior. Who’s benefiting here? Who are you doing it for?”

Another experiment boiled the behavior down to a question of whether participants would tell a single lie to be entered into a prize drawing.

Participants went into a booth and rolled an electronic die five times. If the numbers they rolled totaled at least 14, they would be entered into a lottery to win a $50 gift card for themselves—or, in another condition, for someone else of their choosing. The participants were also asked to show where they considered themselves on a 10-step social scale.

The participants were on an honor system to report the sum of their rolls and the experiment was rigged so that no one got a 14. Nonetheless, those lower in social class lied and said they got the requisite sum approximately 37 percent of the time when it would benefit someone else, compared with only about 5 percent of the time when it would benefit themselves. In contrast, those higher in social class showed nearly the opposite pattern of results: they lied to benefit themselves approximately 47 percent of the time, compared with only about 5 percent of the time when they were benefiting others.

Power and Social Class

Just what components of social class contribute to this behavior? Another series of experiments allowed the researchers to determine that a sense of power—not status per se—is the deciding factor.

“Why does this happen?” Rucker asks. “Those high is social class, by definition, have more wealth and resources. They feel more empowered, and this psychological sense of empowerment leads them down the path of cheating to help themselves. Those who are low in social class do not feel empowered. They feel more communal and more dependent on others, which produces a willingness to help others, even when it involves behaving unethically.”

In other words, power lets people focus on themselves and their own goals, while a lack of power turns people’s attention outward to those who provide a support network. And this focus exerts its influence on people faced with a decision of whether or not to act unethically.

A Path Previously Unexplored

For Rucker, the excitement in these findings is that they take what might be considered a forgone conclusion—that the powerful behave more unethically—and suggest that the relationship between power and unethical behavior is far more nuanced.

“There’s this other path that was unexplored,” he says. “It opens up that question for people as they start examining unethical behavior. Who’s benefiting here? Who are you doing it for?”

He hopes to see related questions answered in future research. Under what circumstances might a high-status person lie to benefit someone else? What about the relative social status of the person asked to commit the unethical act and the person it would benefit? For instance, what if your boss asks you to lie to cover up his affair?

“Ethics are a big part of our society,” Rucker says. “Trying to understand the factors that may tip people one way or the other is both important and exciting.”