Rekers, Blumenthal, Spitzer: Power and Hypocrisy

Why politicians don’t practice what they preach.

The annals of hypocrisy are once again bursting at their bindings with new additions—George Rekers, whose hired “rent boy” has been blabbing to the press about the nude massages he gave the antigay minister and cofounder of the “family values” Family Research Council; crusading Connecticut Attorney General Richard Blumenthal, who “misspoke” about serving in Vietnam (rather than during Vietnam); congressmen who traded derivatives and bet against stocks during the Dow’s 2008 swoon and then turned around and pilloried the likes of Goldman Sachs for doing the same thing. Scooch over, Mark Foley (ex-congressman; crusader against child exploitation; caught in 2006 sending sexually explicit messages to congressional pages) and Sen. Larry (family values; “wide stance”) Craig.

Could the seemingly inexhaustible supply of high-profile hypocrites reflect the fact that the media cover the George Rekers of the world and not your philandering, church-deacon neighbor? In a word, no. They are worse than the rest of us. There really is something about power that stokes hypocrisy, which is the practice of engaging in behavior that you condemn in others. According to new research in the current issue of the journal Psychological Science, there is a direct causal connection between power and hypocrisy—or between power and what the scientists unflinchingly call “sanctimony combined with lechery and gluttony.”

A lab experiment couldn’t very well make participants president for a day and see if the sudden power made them act more hypocritically, so the scientists did the next best thing. In a series of experiments, they induced a feeling of power or powerlessness in their participants (Dutch students) in either of two ways: the scientists had them think about a time when they felt powerful or powerless, or assigned them the role of prime minister or civil servant and let the former boss around the latter. The scientists (Joris Lammers and Diederik Stapel of Tilburg University in the Netherlands and Adam Galinsky of Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management) then asked the participants whether it’s okay to speed if you are late for an appointment; whether it’s okay to omit from a tax return money earned in one’s spare time; and whether someone who finds a stolen bicycle is entitled to keep it rather than bringing it to the police. And then the participants were asked if it’s okay to do these things themselves.

Whether it was speeding, tax dodging, or keeping a stolen bike, the “prime ministers” were the most hypocritical. They said it was acceptable for them do these things, but not for other people to. Similarly, participants who felt a sense of power because they recalled being in such a position once condemned dodgy behavior in others but not themselves. But the “civil servants,” and those who recalled feeling powerless, not only weren’t hypocritical, but leaned in the opposite direction, condemning problematic behavior in themselves more than in others.

So what is it about power that increases hypocrisy, making the powerful condemn in others what they practice themselves? Several things are going on:

(1) The powerful tend to be stricter in their moral judgments of how people should behave. After all, the system—broadly defined as rules and moral norms—got them where they are, so naturally the powerful tend to be staunch and even rigid supporters of those rules and norms. You don’t find many rebels in the seat of power.

(2) The powerful tend to be looser in following these norms themselves. With power comes the right to lay down rules and require people to obey them, as powerful (within their own realm) people such as cops, judges, teachers, and political leaders do. But many rules reflect the belief that if everyone did something (litter, interrupt in class, jaywalk, cheat on taxes, sleep around), the result would be chaos and a breakdown of social order, or at least a big mess. The flip side of this is the recognition that if just one person did these things, the effect (of one piece of litter, one interruption, etc.) would not be catastrophic. So why not let the one rule breaker be me, reasons the person of power.

(3) Power brings with it a sense of entitlement. The powerful therefore feel entitled to break a rule or two even as they demand others follow the rules.

(4) Normally, the fear of social disapproval keeps us from behaving like selfish reprobates. But feeling powerful reduces sensitivity to social disapproval, as the powerful reason that they have some immunity to that disapproval. (Of course, when disapproval turns into a tidal wave of condemnation, even the powerful have to pay attention, as Eliot Spitzer learned.)

Factors 2, 3, and 4 make the powerful more likely to flout moral and social norms. Factor 1 makes them more likely to condemn the same behavior in “the little people.” (Thank you, Leona “only the little people pay taxes” Helmsley.) Add them together and the result is hypocrisy.

As you notice, all of these are judgments, not emotional reactions. That is, people use their reasoning power to excuse misdeeds in themselves (“One little European jaunt with a male escort will not threaten the nation’s family values”; “one inflated expense form will not bankrupt my company”) that they condemn in others. As I wrote in a 2008 column, hypocrisy generally arises less from emotion (as so many moral judgments do) than from higher-level cognition. That is, we think our way into it. The new research shows why the powerful are particularly adept at that. And thank goodness: think of all the amusement we’d miss otherwise.