August 31, 2009

Power biases

HSBC buildingAre the powerless more consequentialist and the powerful more deontological?

News Blog Articles | The Powerful Have a Different Perspective on Ethical Behavior | Miller-McCune Online Magazine - an article about this study, demonstrating that people in a situation of power (or rather, thinking about power) tend to do more rule-based thinking and less outcome-based thinking in moral decisionmaking. They found this by priming students in different ways (e.g. by describing their role in a scenario as being employee or manager) and giving them various moral considerations.

Other factors such as self-interest can of course counter-bias this shift. The researchers suggest that the rule-based thinking is favoured because stability is in the interest of the powerful. However, it seems unlikely that just priming a bit would make students consider an entire imaginary career: the power-primed student does not have a strong incentive for keeping his imaginary job.

Another possibility is that power makes people think in a more abstract, whole picture way (paper (pdf)). That would make the consistent rule approach more favoured than the case-by-case approach.

Power has other effects on thinking. In general empowerment tends to make the empowered stereotype other people a bit more - perhaps another form of abstraction. In Adam D. Galinsky, Joe C. Magee, M. Ena Inesi, and Deborah H Gruenfeld, Power and Perspectives Not Taken, Psychological Science, 17:12, 1068-1074 2006 the authors show that power-primed people more often assumed other people had the same information as they did (the "telepathic boss" problem), and were less good at judging emotional expression.

All in all, this suggests that these biases might change how decisions are motivated and done in ways that are not due to the moral issue at hand but due to who is making the decision. Hence we have a reason to think that it might be biased, at least if we think the right moral decision in a situation should be independent of who is making it. Which is very much a principle argument, which in turn might indicate that for some strange reason I think of myself being in power.

Posted by Anders3 at August 31, 2009 07:24 PM