Over 500,000 people visited Farnam Street last month to learn how to make better decisions, create new ideas, and avoid stupid errors. With more than 100,000 subscribers to our popular weekly digest, we've become an online intellectual hub. To learn more about what we do, start here.

Is That Behavior Ethical?

Does power influence moral thinking? Well, that depends on whether you are mulling over an ethical decision from a position of power.

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.

“Thinking about power,” the authors of the study, Lammers and Stapel said, “increases rule-based thinking and decreases outcome-based thinking in participants’ moral decision making. Rule-based thinking is attractive to the powerful because stability is in their interest and, therefore, cognitively appealing.” That is, we like a rule until it doesn't benefit us.

How Power Influences Moral Thinking