Why Are Some Powerful People Unethical?
Whether in the public arena or in informal contexts, people with power often engage in unethical behaviors. Endless news stories cover the latest political or business scandals that involve dishonesty and moral transgressions. Most of us can share personal accounts, such as working for a particularly mean boss, who does not seem to care much for rules or fear repercussions. A case in point is the widespread breaking of COVID-19 containment rules in 2020 by top British politicians including the then-prime minister, Boris Johnson.
Although it is a common belief that power corrupts, where opinions diverge is whether the experience of power over others makes normal people dishonest, or whether bad people become powerful in competitive societies. Disentangling these questions was our goal.
To do this, we examined the role of a dominant personality. Our definition of dominance was the habitual display of assertive and forceful behavior. Through such behavior, people with dominant personalities incite fear in others and attain status or power. Powerful people frequently appear dominant (think Donald Trump and Elon Musk). The observation that socially powerful positions are over-populated by dominant people is backed up by research. Dominant people gain influence because they behave in ways that signal competence, regardless of actual ability. They are efficient in learning how to attain self-advantages, and force others to comply. Dominance is also associated with various anti-social inclinations, such as hubris and narcissism. Dominant people are often entitled and believe themselves to be invincible.
But are dominant people more likely to be dishonest? Existing research on this question is less clear.
By combining these insights, we investigated whether powerful people behaving badly could be explained by high positions of society being crowded with dominant people, rather than caused by power itself. By establishing whether dominant people are more unethical compared to less dominant people, we were able to separate the effects of personality and power positions on unethical behavior.
We focused on the summer of 2020 when the British Government enforced strict COVID-19 containment rules across the country. On the surface, consistent with the stereotype that power corrupts, London residents in higher professional positions were more likely to break COVID rules, compared to those in lower professional positions. However, we found that this was due to the high concentration of dominant people taking up the higher positions. That is, dominant people were more likely to break COVID rules, and this tendency combined with the overlap between dominant people and high-powered people was the real reason that the breaking of COVID containment rules was pronounced among higher professional positions. Dominant Londoners felt entitled, and believed they were unlikely to suffer badly from getting COVID, which explained why they broke the rules.
The findings from this study were corroborated in an experiment. We recruited employed adults across the United Kingdom and found that managers lied more than subordinates to receive money. However, this was again explained by these managers already having dominant personalities. In other experiments, dominant people believed powerful roles suited them well, and wanted to have social power when given a choice, to a higher degree than their peers who were not as dominant. Such preference for powerful positions was evident even when they had no prior experience or expertise in the subject matter. This shows that dominant people are likely to put themselves forward when opportunities for power and career advancement become available.
Our research points to the possibility that the real reason the powerful misbehave is because individuals with dominant personalities rise to higher positions in the competitive societies we examined. Because dominant people also happen to be likely cheaters, instances of the powerful behaving unethically would increase.
Not all competitive hierarchies are favorable to the dominant, however, which provides food for thought. In academia, a specialist field where expert knowledge in subject matter is a pre-requisite for career advancement (more so than in… let's say politics), dominance did not coincide with higher positions. On the other hand, prestige, which is the garnering of respect based on reputation and experience, was closely tied to power and influence. Across multiple contexts, having prestige was not related to unethical behavior.
Advice for Organizations
What this means for organizations is this: When they look to promote individuals, they should actively look beyond the loud and pushy people who raise their hands, to those who may have expertise and experience, but are less inclined to put themselves in the limelight. Employers should carefully set apart indicators of competence from the confidence that dominant people display. This difficult but crucial separation could save organizations from the pitfalls of unethical leadership. Going further, it raises the possibility that at a societal level, the kind of people we like and choose as our leaders may be the hidden reason behind their frequent unethical behaviors.
For Further Reading
Kim, K., & Guinote, A. (2022). Cheating at the top: Trait dominance explains dishonesty more consistently than social power. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 48(12). https://doi.org/10.1177/01461672211051481
Kyoo Hwa Kim holds a PhD from University College London in Experimental Psychology and her research investigates unethical behaviors individuals make under competition or organizational pressures.
Ana Guinote is Professor of Social Cognition at University College London. Her research examines the various ways in which social power influences social cognition and behavior.