Are people placed in high-power positions more likely to break rules and cheat? Popular media often depict people in high-power positions engaging in all kinds of cheating. Prominent politicians including presidents of the United States, senators and congressmen, and successful businessmen such as the CEOs of Hewlett-Packard and Boeing were all involved in scandals involving extramarital affairs.

Lying and breaking the law may also seem commonplace among people in high-power positions. For instance, UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson was caught hosting parties while the country was under a mandated COVID-19 lockdown (which ultimately led to his resignation), and prominent U.S. politicians such as California governor Gavin Newsom were also seen violating Covid policy.

Beyond this anecdotal evidence, research findings consistently support a link between feeling powerful and engaging in various types of cheating, such as cheating to earn money, breaking rules to gain money, telling lies, being hypocritical or engaging in infidelity, and reporting having higher intentions to engage in infidelity in the future.

Power Does Not Always Lead to Cheating

So, are we to assume that being powerful enhances anti-social outcomes and cheating behavior? If only it were that simple! Research shows that having power can also lead to positive, pro-social outcomes and ethical behavior, such as increased diligence and forgiveness of others. There are countless examples, though not as headline-grabbing, of powerful people acting morally.

When Does Power Lead to More Vs. Less Cheating?

We proposed a new idea about when and why power could lead to different (even opposite) cheating-related outcomes. We thought that power might increase or decrease cheating, depending on whether people hold positive or negative thoughts about cheating.  Our reasoning, is that power encourages people to rely and act on whatever thoughts they have about cheating, whether positive or negative, by increasing the extent to which those thoughts are seen as valid so as to guide subsequent behavior.  So, when people have positive thoughts about cheating, power enhances reliance and use of those thoughts, leading them to cheat more. On the other hand, for people with negative thoughts about cheating, power increases reliance on those thoughts, leading to less cheating.

Experimental Evidence That Power Turns Cheating Thoughts Into Cheating Behavior

To test this idea, we conducted two experiments.  In the first, participants were university students who were asked to generate either positive or negative thoughts towards cheating. Right after the completion of this thought-listing task, they were induced to feel powerful or powerless.  To do this, we had participants recall past episodes when they held high or low power positions. Finally, participants were asked whether they intended to cheat on their partner. 

The results showed that high-power-led people with positive thoughts about cheating reported increased intentions to be unfaithful. The opposite was true when people had negative thoughts about cheating; when participants felt more powerful, negative thoughts towards cheating resulted in decreased intentions to be unfaithful.

In our second experiment, we wanted to replicate and extend these findings.  We recruited workers from Amazon's Mechanical Turk. We used the same methods to induce positive and negative thoughts and a sense of high or low power but used a more consequential measure of cheating that involved actual cheating behavior, and not just intentions to cheat. Specifically, participants received $0.70 for their participation and had the chance to win up to $4 in cash depending on their performance on a problem-solving task. Participants had the opportunity to cheat by exaggerating their performance on the problem-solving tasks, and therefore earn more money.

We found the same pattern of results as before, this time in actual cheating behavior. High-power participants cheated more by falsely reporting that they solved more problems, but only when they were induced to generate positive thoughts about cheating. The opposite was true when powerful participants generated negative cheating-relevant thoughts. In that case, high-power participants cheated less.

In both experiments, we found that power increases cheating intentions and cheating behavior only when individuals were first induced to generate favorable thoughts about cheating. However, when initial thoughts about cheating were unfavorable, power validated these anti-cheating thoughts, thus leading to less cheating behavior.


Empowerment is universally encouraged. But the conditions under which empowerment can be beneficial are not always straightforward. This is the main contribution of this research. Power can lead to more or less ethical behavior depending on the thoughts people have about that behavior. When empowerment follows a pro-social, responsible mindset it can lead to decreased corruption and increased ethical behavior, but empowering an anti-social irresponsible mindset can be harmful.

Empowerment is a double-edged sword. So, before giving people power, it would be wise to identify what their thoughts are about behaving ethically.

For Further Reading

Lamprinakos, G., Stavraki, M., Santos, D., Briñol, P., & Petty, R. E. (2024). Power can increase but also decrease cheating depending on what thoughts are validated.  Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 111, ArtID:104578. DOI:10.1016/j.jesp.2023.104578

Briñol, P., Petty, R. E., Durso, R. O., & Rucker, D. D. (2017). Power and persuasion: Processes by which perceived power can influence evaluative judgmentsReview of General Psychology, 21, 223-241. DOI: 10.1037/gpr0000119

Grigorios Lamprinakos is an Assistant Professor in Marketing at the University of Birmingham. Grigorios is interested in the cognitive and meta-cognitive mechanisms, that promote sustainable choices and responsible behaviour to provide people with a better tomorrow.