The Reasoned Review

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Power: A Psychological Addiction

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(c/o Andrew Sullivan)

Scienceblogs puts a healthy spotlight on the psychology of power:

The scientists argue that power is corrupting because it leads to moral hypocrisy. Although we almost always know what the right thing to do is – cheating at dice is a sin – power makes it easier to justify the wrongdoing, as we rationalize away our moral mistake. For instance, when Lammers and Galinsky asked the subjects (in both low and high-power conditions) how they would judge an individual who drove too fast when late for an appointment, or whether it was acceptable to cheat on the income tax, people with power consistently said it was worse when others committed those crimes than when they did. In other words, the powerful people believe they had a good reason for speeding – they’re important people, with important things to do – but everyone else should follow the posted signs. We become the exception to the rule, which is the law.

The real question, of course, is what causes this blatant hypocrisy. One possibility is that power makes us less sensitive to the needs and feelings of others – it silences our empathy – and so we only think about our own motivations and needs. Adam Smith, the 18th century philosopher, was the first modern thinker to emphasize the importance of empathy in shaping morality. “As we have no immediate experience of what other men feel,” Smith wrote, “we can form no idea of the manner in which they are affected, but by conceiving what we ourselves should feel in the like situation.” This mirroring process leads to an instinctive sympathy for our fellow man⎯Smith called it “fellow-feeling”⎯which formed the basis for our moral decisions.

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Written by pavanvan

January 31, 2010 at 9:44 am

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