A very large number of people in the UK have been complying with coronavirus lockdown rules and staying at home, according to recent study. That, in part, explains the outrage that has followed the revelation that Dominic Cummings, Boris Johnson’s chief adviser, was not among them.
Cummings has admitted travelling across the country in April to stay at a property owned by his parents, during which time he experienced symptoms of COVID-19.
But the fact that a person in a position of such power appears to have ignored his own rules is not a coincidence or even an exception. In fact, there is a large body of research that shows that it is people in positions of power that are most likely to take excessive risks. Their very nature seems to be to break rules, act hypocritically, overlook questions of justice and ignore the perspective of others.
Powerful people are more likely to under-estimate risks and engage in reckless behaviour. One series of studies, for example, found that people who were made to feel powerful were much more likely to downplay the risks of a particular course of action. Powerful people were also more likely to engage in risky behaviour such as having unprotected sex. Another study in the US financial industry found that particularly powerful CEOs were more likely to have engaged with the risky sub-prime lending market.
People who are put in a position of power are more likely to bend or break the rules and commit unethical actions. For instance, one study found that people with more expensive cars were more likely violate rules of the road, such as cutting off other cars at an intersection or cutting off pedestrians at a crossing. And when people were made to feel powerful in a lab setting they were more likely to dip into a jar of candy that was meant for children.
It’s just not fair
As well as being more likely to break the rules, people who are put in powerful positions are more likely to act in a hypocritical way by strongly enforcing a set of rules they don’t comply with themselves. In one study, a group of Dutch students were given a task that made them feel more or less powerful. After that task, they were either asked to play a game (which was easy to cheat on) or rank whether it was right for someone to cheat on their travel expenses. They found that students who were made to feel powerful were both more likely to cheat in the game and give a harsh punishment to the person fiddling their expenses. The researchers also found that people who were made to feel they had low levels of power tended to judge their own cheating much more harshly than they judged other people cheating.
Being put in a position of power also tends to make people less concerned about questions of fairness and justice. One study found that people who were made to feel powerful were less likely to treat other people in a just way. In another study, researchers found that the higher up an organisation a person was, the less concerned they were about just procedures in that organisation. This suggests justice is something which occupies the minds of the weak and slips the minds of the powerful.
Putting someone in a position of power also means they are less likely to be able to see the perspective of others. In a series of experiments, people who were made to feel powerful were more fixed in seeing the world from their own perspective. When asked to draw on an E on their forehead, powerful people drew it so it was legible to them but not another person. The researchers interpreted this an indicator that the powerful literally see the world from their own perspective. They also found powerful people assumed others had the information they had (even when they didn’t), and they were less good at reading the emotion of others.
Bring the powerful into line
Having power can make you more likely to misbehave, but there are things which can be done to curb its abuse. Dachner Keltner who has been studying the negative impact of power for decades has some suggestions. These include spending time working on self awareness and understanding how others see the world. This can break through their tendency to see the world in a self serving way. They can also try to nurture a sense of empathy by investing time in experiencing the lives and concerns of the less powerful.
Encouraging the powerful to become more empathetic and mindful is usually not enough. When scandals hit, people usually search for scapegoats. A public apology, a resignation, an inquiry and some new rules usually makes the public feel like something has been done. But in my own research on the topic, we found that hasty actions often detract attention and leave the system of power in place which caused the problems in the first place. Often the only way to remember the lessons of irresponsible behaviour is to change underlying institutions in a way which creates limitations on the powerful and reminds them that they too are bound by the rules.