From the Archives: Power

Every Friday morning during semester, the MMPL meets for Journal Club. During journal club, one of the students or staff will present a research paper - it can be old or new, but it's usually short and most often on morality. Since October, I haven't been able to go due to other commitments, but I still wanted to give you (dear new readers!) a taste for the kind of thing we talk about during these meetings - so here's one from earlier this year, when I wrote about the journal club on my old blog. Enjoy!


We had the first Moral Psych Lab meeting of 2012 yesterday morning. Gathered on the wonky chairs of The Potter, we sipped our coffees and held onto our papers in the wind, while Vicky talked about Power and Moral Identity (PDF: DeCelles et al, 2012).

I found the paper very interesting, not least because I haven’t really thought that much about the concept of “power” before. (Except a little bit, in relation to moral hypocrisy.)

What does it mean to “have power”? When the phrase is used about people, there seems to be an implied “…over [something]“, but it isn’t always clear what that something is. Other people? Resources? Your own choices? Where does power end, and assertiveness, authority or autonomy begin? What about Nietzsche’s “will to power”?

In fact, Knobe and Leiter wrote in 2006 that “neglect of Nietzsche in moral psychology is no longer an option for those philosophers who accept that moral psychology should be grounded in real psychology” (PDF: Knobe & Leiter, 2006), so in some ways it’s surprising that he didn’t at all show up in the De Celles study.

On the other hand, it is not surprising at all. This is psychology, not philosophy! I do forget about the distinction sometimes, which would be a worry for my PhD if it wasn’t for Simon’s ability to sporadically remind me, and thus keep me on track.

So. What did De Celles &co have to say about power and morality? In a nutshell, that power won’t always corrupt. Rather, if a person has a strong moral identity, then being in a situation of power (or, actually, being primed with the concept of power), will make them act more pro-socially than they otherwise would. The mechanism may be that they are more aware of the moral aspects of the situation, but the methods used to measure moral awareness were perhaps not quite precise enough to warrant that conclusion.

If people score low on moral identity, on the other hand, the psychological experience of power will make them more likely to act in a self-interested manner, at the expense of “the common good”. Some questions arose about what kind of moral identity was really being measured here (it seemed to be heavily biased towards endorsement of pro-social traits), and also what this study might mean for the finding that people of low socio-economic status are more likely to behave ethically than those from higher social classes. (Here’s a range of reports on the finding.)

So apparently greed isn't good? I think Simon would have something to say about that.

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