The 2001 Enron scandal is a study in corruption and greed among the upper echelons of corporate executives.
Executives at Enron—at the time the seventh-largest company in the U.S. and a darling of Wall Street—lied relentlessly about the company’s financial condition, pushing it into bankruptcy. While executives in the know sold their stock before the share price plummeted, many thousands of lower-level employees lost their life savings.
These events beg an important question: How can we prevent those in power from abusing their privilege? Although this is a difficult problem to solve, perhaps encouraging power holders to consider how they should act can help curb unethical behavior.
To understand the transformative effects of possessing or lacking power, researchers have focused on the psychology of feeling powerful or powerless. Now, new research from the Kellogg School indicates that changing the way we frame the expectations of those in power could be one variable in the equation of changing behavior.
“People say power corrupts … but it’s not just about having power. It’s what comes to mind with that power.”
Power has long been linked in the popular imagination with skirting—if not outright rejecting—the rules of morality. Indeed, prior research finds that the experience of power can increase people’s unethical behavior. But research by marketing professor Derek Rucker suggests that power need not inevitably corrupt. Power can be accompanied by expectations of how others believe power should be wielded. And, if people focus on the expectation that power should be used ethically, Rucker and his colleagues find that people are more likely to behave ethically.
“We’ve been interested for a long time in how a sense of having or lacking power affects the psyche,” Rucker says. “There’s this long-held lay belief that power corrupts, so we’ve been probing and pushing at that idea in different ways. We really want to pick it apart and ask: When is that belief true and when is it not true?”
Power Does Not Always Corrupt
Rucker and his colleagues, Miao Hu at the University of Hawai’i at Manoa and Adam D. Galinsky at Columbia University, conducted a series of experiments to better understand the relationship between power and unethical behavior.
In one study, the researchers surveyed 202 participants about the expectations they had of powerful people. Participants were asked how those with and without power do behave—their “descriptive expectations” of power— and how those with and without power should behave—their “prescriptive expectations” of power.
When asked how people actually do behave, “people say those with power are more likely to behave unethically,” Rucker says.
“This is consistent with the old adage that power corrupts. However, when asked about their prescriptive expectations, our participants said that powerful people should behave more ethically than those without power.”
Next, the researchers looked at whether these different expectations could be used to shape participants’ own responses to a hypothetical moral quandary.
Rucker and colleagues assigned participants to either temporarily feel powerful or powerless by recalling a time they possessed or lacked power. The researchers also asked participants to think about what others expected them to do in that role, which emphasizes descriptive expectations, or what others would hope or ideally wish they would do, which emphasizes prescriptive expectations. Finally, participants read a scenario about a Starbucks customer who accidentally received an extra $10 in change. Instead of letting the cashier know about the mistake, the customer pockets the cash. Participants were asked to rate how likely they would be to pocket the extra money if they were the customer in the same situation.
When people focused on the descriptive expectations of power, those in a high-power state indicated they would be more likely to commit the unethical act compared with those in the low-power state. This supports the idea that power corrupts. However, for participants focused on prescriptive expectations, the effect reversed; those in a high-power state were less likely to indicate they would engage in the unethical behavior.
“The results excited us,” Rucker states. “They provided evidence, albeit preliminary, that power may not always corrupt one’s behavior.”
But would these results hold in an experiment with actual money at stake? The researchers decided to find out.
University students came into the lab to play a game that entailed rolling a 20-sided die five times and self-reporting the total of the rolls. A higher total gave them a better chance of winning a $50 Amazon gift card in a lottery. Beforehand, the students went through the exercise of either temporarily feeling powerful or powerless, and of thinking about either the descriptive or prescriptive expectations of power.
Because the expected average outcome of the die rolls was known to be 52.5, averages above this number suggest potential cheating. Students placed in a state of high power with a descriptive focus (meaning they were thinking about what people actually do) reported an average die role of 63, suggestive of cheating. However, when students were placed in a high-power state with a prescriptive focus, they reported an average die role of 53.6, suggestive of little, if any, cheating.
Curbing Unethical Behavior
While the results are exciting, Rucker is upfront about the limitations of the research.
“We haven’t pinned down the mechanism per se, and it’s important to work on that. But, one thought we have is that this is about the type of information that is accessible to a person,” Rucker says. “People say power corrupts your mind and how you see the world—but it’s not just about having power. It’s what comes to mind with that power.”
The results of these studies may serve as a starting point for curbing unethical behavior in political and corporate organizations. For example, workshops might be implemented that showcase leaders who have faced tough choices and behaved ethically. Awards or recognition could be given to constantly reinforce a link between power and “doing the right thing.” The basic idea is thinking about how to change the environment so it reinforces the right behavior.
Although untested, Rucker is interested in whether an opportune time to intervene is when someone is switching from a position of low power to one of high power.
“It’s just a thought experiment right now, but I wonder if there’s a critical time to implant the right type of expectations,” he says.
“Maybe when people first acquire power is the time to warn them of the dark side and focus them on others’ expectations to set a proper standard.”