How power influences moral thinking

J Pers Soc Psychol. 2009 Aug;97(2):279-89. doi: 10.1037/a0015437.


The authors conducted 5 studies to test the idea that both thinking about and having power affects the way in which people resolve moral dilemmas. It is shown that high power increases the use of rule-based (deontological) moral thinking styles, whereas low power increases reliance on outcome-based (consequentialist) moral thinking. Stated differently, in determining whether an act is right or wrong, the powerful focus on whether rules and principles are violated, whereas the powerless focus on the consequences. For this reason, the powerful are also more inclined to stick to the rules, irrespective of whether this has positive or negative effects, whereas the powerless are more inclined to make exceptions. The first 3 experiments show that thinking about power increases rule-based thinking and decreases outcome-based thinking in participants' moral decision making. A 4th experiment shows the mediating role of moral orientation in the effect of power on moral decisions. The 5th experiment demonstrates the role of self-interest by showing that the power-moral link is reversed when rule-based decisions threaten participants' own self-interests.

MeSH terms

  • Analysis of Variance
  • Cues
  • Decision Making / physiology
  • Humans
  • Morals*
  • Power, Psychological*
  • Students / psychology
  • Thinking / physiology*