Those who think they have power tend to abuse that power

This thought could probably apply to many different people in many different parts of society, but right now my brain is fixated on the nauseating stench coming from the banking industry. From Barclays colluding with central banking authorities to manipulate the very heart of the industry to HSBC providing banking for some of the world’s worst criminals, the banking industry seems amoral right now. I wonder if part of it is explained by a simple experiment?

The graduation speech at Princeton this year was given by Michael Lewis. In it, he discusses an experiment that explores the relationship between power and morality:

” … a pair of researchers in the Cal psychology department staged an experiment. They began by grabbing students, as lab rats. Then they broke the students into teams, segregated by sex. Three men, or three women, per team. Then they put these teams of three into a room, and arbitrarily assigned one of the three to act as leader. Then they gave them some complicated moral problem to solve: say what should be done about academic cheating, or how to regulate drinking on campus.


Exactly 30 minutes into the problem-solving the researchers interrupted each group. They entered the room bearing a plate of cookies. Four cookies. The team consisted of three people, but there were these four cookies. Every team member obviously got one cookie, but that left a fourth cookie, just sitting there. It should have been awkward. But it wasn’t. With incredible consistency the person arbitrarily appointed leader of the group grabbed the fourth cookie, and ate it. Not only ate it, but ate it with gusto: lips smacking, mouth open, drool at the corners of their mouths. In the end all that was left of the extra cookie were crumbs on the leader’s shirt.

This leader had performed no special task. He had no special virtue. He’d been chosen at random, 30 minutes earlier. His status was nothing but luck. But it still left him with the sense that the cookie should be his.”

The banking industry has long been told how important it is. And when the last crisis came, they were told again that they were “too big to fail”. Maybe all that talk of their importance allowed them to move themselves into a separate category all on its own.

We know that “absolute power corrupts absolutely.” Research is now showing the link between social power and morality, and most of it suggests that absolute power is not required to influence people’s morals. Sadly, the research is showing that that even the illusion of power leads to less care for others, and less moral behaviour.

19 July update: For more experiments in power and morality, see Dan Ariely’s blog today

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