Jan. 25, 2013 -- Here, perhaps, is part of why Congress is paralyzed: A person with power is more likely to think he or she has a better moral compass than the rest of us. We see shades of gray. The powerful see black and white.
That's the central finding of a new study from researchers at the University of Southern California and Stanford University who say the acquisition of power makes a person on the rise think they see with greater "moral clarity." They may think that, but they may be wrong.
Even members of Congress, according to Scott Wiltermuth, assistant professor of management and organization at USC and Francis Flynn of Stanford's graduate school of business, see fewer shades of gray in major issues from abortion to gay rights to the federal budget.
"You don't get elected to Congress and feel powerless," Wiltermuth said in a telephone interview. And the powerful think they know right from wrong.
The two researchers, whose study is to be published in a forthcoming issue of the Academy of Management Journal, began looking at the issue when Flynn noticed that some of his graduate students had trouble resolving major ethical issues. But some students had it a bit easier.
"The people who came across as the most powerful within the groups also seemed to be the most certain of their positions," Wiltermuth said. "So we wondered if this explains some of the behavior we see in Congress, where people in power see the world in stark black and white terms."
So they set out to see if having power makes one more committed to definite answers, yes or no, and less interested in maybe.
Some 338 persons took part in four experiments. Some of the participants were made to feel powerful by recalling a time when they had power. Some were actually given some power over other participants. For others, the question of power was never even raised.
In one experiment, the participants were asked to provide a "yes," or "no," or "it depends" answer to a series of questions involving ethical issues, such as, "Is it OK to lie to coworkers if a job that is listed as open has already been promised to someone else?"
The researchers were looking for the frequency that the answer "it depends" was given, because that suggests a more ambiguous attitude. As they expected, that answer was rare among the powerful participants, but common among those who had not been imbued with a sense of power. The other three experiments explored related areas, but the researchers came away thinking they had proved their point: Power makes a person think he or she knows what's right.
Wiltermuth cited Lyndon Johnson as an example. In his years as Senate Majority Leader, Johnson was famous for an unyielding belief in certain moral principles, like civil rights, and those who disagreed paid a price. A few years later, as president, he was also convinced he was right to expand the war in Vietnam, a decision that ultimately destroyed his presidency.
The two researchers said they believe a sense of personal power has made so many members of Congress convinced they are right, even on issues with many shades of gray, that compromise is almost impossible.
Beyond the Congress, the research has implications for the working class. The research also shows that a sense of "moral clarity," even if it's wrong, makes a boss more likely to react strongly -- perhaps much too strongly -- to a worker who crosses the boss's version of a moral line. Participants in the study who felt powerful were clearly ready to administer stronger punishment to offenders than those who were less powerful. If the rest of the workers find the punishment excessive, it may disrupt the entire operation.
Of course, there are many other factors governing our reaction to ethical issues, in the workplace and in Washington.
In some cases, members of Congress entered politics simply because they felt strongly about a specific ethical issue. Concern over big government brought many newcomers into politics over the last four years, for example. Likewise for abortion, gay rights, immigration, and many other issues.
So some didn't achieve "moral clarity" because they just became powerful. But Wiltermuth suspects that power reinforced their convictions, making the gap between the two sides even wider.
The research doesn't address a much broader question. If power refines the moral compass, does it make the powerful more moral?
Who in Congress would like to take that one?