social power and morality

The following is taken from the graduation speech of Michael Lewis at Princeton in 2012. In it, he discusses an experiment that explores the relationship between power and morality.

“…a pair of researchers in the Cal psychology department staged an experiment. They began by grabbing students, as lab rats. Then they broke the students into teams, segregated by sex. Three men, or three women, per team. Then they put these teams of three into a room, and arbitrarily assigned one of the three to act as leader. Then they gave them some complicated moral problem to solve: say what should be done about academic cheating, or how to regulate drinking on campus.

Exactly 30 minutes into the problem-solving the researchers interrupted each group. They entered the room bearing a plate of cookies. Four cookies. The team consisted of three people, but there were these four cookies. Every team member obviously got one cookie, but that left a fourth cookie, just sitting there. It should have been awkward. But it wasn’t. With incredible consistency the person arbitrarily appointed leader of the group grabbed the fourth cookie, and ate it. Not only ate it, but ate it with gusto: lips smacking, mouth open, drool at the corners of their mouths. In the end all that was left of the extra cookie were crumbs on the leader’s shirt.

This leader had performed no special task. He had no special virtue. He’d been chosen at random, 30 minutes earlier. His status was nothing but luck. But it still left him with the sense that the cookie should be his.”


We’ve probably all heard the saying “absolute power corrupts absolutely.” Well, there is a great deal of research concerning the link between social power and morality, and most of it suggests that absolute power is not required to change people’s morals; sadly it tends to show that more power leads to less care for others, and less moral behavior.


3 thoughts on “social power and morality

  1. Good snippet. You said “it tends to show that more power leads to less care for others, and less moral behavior.” I would like to contribute a bit and add that some studies ( have also shown that people who are very rich or successful have less empathy perception than less wealthy people. This is not necessarily good or bad thing per se, but something that just is.

    It can be also said, that the most people without tendencies for leadership or focus in their life are constantly looking for some guidance and direction of what to do next, in order feel that they belong and have purpose, especially in unknown situations. Letting people with more initiative or an upper hand (whether it is deserved or not) in any situation to exploit that power in an unjust way without an objection is almost as disrespectful, even if not toward others, but for yourself.

    Competition is good, it makes us try harder.

    Another old argument comes into mind. That those people who are naturally drawn to gain (absolute) power and especially political power might be the least qualified to yield those kind of responsibilities in a just way, unless the public can support the right one’s, but this is obviously an over-generalization.

    I disagree a bit though that “absolute power corrupts absolutely” First of all, only in rare cases there is absolute power for anyone. Life is too complex to make these kind of assumptions that power leads automatically to less caring for other’s. While it might be true that to become highly successful or a respected leader you have to be selfish to some degree, there is different kind of power.

    Will power in your own personal life to choose what you do or create next, without letting other’s getting in a way, political power, financial leverage (Bill Gates), fame (Bono), technology (Apple) and based on the amount of scandals that surface yearly from financial world (insider trading), politics (Berlusconi) etc etc, leads to believe that even though power might corrupt some, there is mass who constantly criticizes and counterweights the use of power.

    In this time and age, the brands, entertainment culture and scattered media has taken our attention and then some. So in some way the culture around us is a power without a clear source that affects our thinking and our way of living and evolving as a society.

    So, even in the most extreme scenario, where we are psychologically blinded by power the more we get it, regardless of how good our intentions are or how much integrity we have. That power comes with scrutiny from public and people who are affected by it, because only fraction gets to the top in any way. As a society we ebb and flow and this tugging war between public and the egos we lifted to guide us keeps us honest, keeps things in check.

    Anyway, just my .02

    • great insight superstar!

      “…studies have also shown that people who are very rich or successful have less empathy perception than less wealthy people. This is not necessarily good or bad thing per se, but something that just is…”

      i actually DO think the aforementioned IS counterintuitive to human growth.

      i think part of the systemic undertones to “more wealth equals less compassion” is that the wealth inherently serves only the ego. anytime an ego goes unchecked, the expression of such is simply an oxymoron to “self”. we must learn to abate the dark side of our egos.

      you make a great point about absolute power however, i contend the notion that said power is somehow “checked and balanced”. too many disparities still exist even though their existence is blatantly bad for humans. to me, there is no check and balance for bad police that kill or hurt people that results in just get administrative leave or fired – no balance there at all!

      in my opinion much of this revolves around race/class. those that have “power” and “control” are not brown – simple <– sucks but true story.

      for example; to date, we still have a government that is not compromised of which the people it represents. if there are 16.3% latinos, 12.2% african americans and 4.7% asians in the US, then how come our governmental representatives do not reflect such ratios to available legislative seats?! are other races not as qualified? ***shrugs***

      my point is that i think we are much farther from checks and balances being in place than we think. sure, today i can use the same water fountain as every other human but we have MUCH farther to go.

      unfortunately, i don't think there is enough scrutiny "allowed" to provide the much needed overhaul for our society. until we really have a productive nuts and bolts conversation about the true issues – not sure how we will get there.

      lastly, when you become a billionaire remember to always give forward and never stop blogging!

  2. Pingback: Comment: Power and morality « Just Another Superstar

Please use the comments to demonstrate your own ignorance, unfamiliarity with empirical data, ability to repeat discredited memes, and lack of respect for scientific knowledge. Also, be sure to create straw men and argue against things I have neither said nor even implied. Any irrelevancies you can mention will also be appreciated. Lastly, kindly forgo all civility in your discourse . . . you are, after all, anonymous :)

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