Friday, January 29, 2010

Humility Leads to Honesty

The Economist's summary of an article in Psychological Science is positively fascinating:

All of the volunteers were then asked to rate how immoral it would be for someone to take an abandoned bicycle rather than report the bicycle to the police. They were also asked, if they were in real need of a bicycle, how likely they would be to take it themselves and not report it. [Each question had a scale of 1 (totally immoral) to 9 (totally moral)]

The “powerful” who had been primed to believe they were entitled to their power readily engaged in acts of moral hypocrisy. They assigned a value of 5.1 to others engaging in the theft of the bicycle while rating the action at 6.9 if they were to do it themselves.

Among participants in all of the low-power states, morally hypocritical behaviour inverted itself, as it had in the case of tax fraud. “Legitimate” low-power individuals assigned others a score of 5.1 if they stole a bicycle and gave themselves a 4.3. Those primed to feel that their lack of power was illegitimate behaved similarly, assigning values of 4.7 and 4.4 respectively.

However, an intriguing characteristic emerged among participants in high-power states who felt they did not deserve their elevated positions. These people showed a similar tendency to that found in low-power individuals—to be harsh on themselves and less harsh on others—but the effect was considerably more dramatic. They felt that others warranted a lenient 6.0 on the morality scale when stealing a bike but assigned a highly immoral 3.9 if they took it themselves. Dr Lammers and Dr Galinsky call this reversal “hypercrisy”.

They argue, therefore, that people with power that they think is justified break rules not only because they can get away with it, but also because they feel at some intuitive level that they are entitled to take what they want. This sense of entitlement is crucial to understanding why people misbehave in high office. In its absence, abuses will be less likely.

So it seems a sense of humility will lead people to away from abusing power. While a sense of pride or arrogance will breed bad behaviour. That's probably worth keeping in mind when deciding who to hire or vote for. It's even more important to keep in mind when examining our own conscience.


The_Iceman said...

The Economist lost me after their endorsement of that beacon of fiscal responsibility Barak Obama.

Patrick O'Neil said...

Hey Iceman, I just read your blog today.

I disagree with the Economist frequently, but it's still well written and interesting. The original article was published in psychological science, but I'm certain the Econmist's summary was more readable.