Powerful People Believe Everyone–Except Themselves–Should Follow Rules

Which one feels more powerful?

A recent study explored the impact of having power–or even thinking for a moment about power–on moral judgements.  Power causes  people to be much more likely to advocate for moral judgments based upon following the rules.  In contrast, people primed to think about or experience powerlessness  are much likelier to make situational moral judgments that aim at accomplishing the right outcome,  even if the means flout clear rules.

Jorris Lammers and his colleagues presented volunteers with sharp moral dilemmas, and asked them to decide the right course of conduct.  Should police interrogators falsely tell an admitted kidnapper that a world expert in use of torture (a prohibited interrogation method) was en route via helicopter to force disclosure of where the kidnapped young boy was being hidden?  Should doctors who knew a young man had only six months to live because of an incurable, fatal illness hide the diagnosis from him, as requested by his girlfriend but prohibited by applicable ethical rules, long enough for the young man to enjoy a forthcoming and long-anticipated vacation with  her?

Probing the impact of power on people’s moral thinking, the researchers assigned two conditions to the volunteers.  One group was primed with words associated with being powerful, or put in an experimental situation in which they were given power over others, while the second group was primed with words relating to powerlessness, or put in experimental situations in which others had power over them.  The powerful group was far more likely to insist that the rules must be followed.  The powerless group was far more likely to decide that the desirable end justified the impermissible means.

So are people more likely to act according to the rules if they are in positions of power?

Yes, unless it’s their own ox that is being gored.

Lammers’ group then asked both the “power-primed” and the “powerless-primed” groups to read a short narrative and decide whether it was OK for an impoverished apartment-seeker to jump a three-year waiting list for subsidized public housing by using a trick that would place him or her at the front of the queue. Again, those randomly assigned to the power condition were much likelier to disapprove of breaking the rules than those assigned to the powerless condition.

But this time, the study included a tricky wrinkle.  Half of each group read the narrative in the third person, while the other half of each group read the story in the first person, as follows:

“Suppose you are looking for a new apartment after your landlord has terminated the tenancy. However, the only affordable option is public housing, for which there is a three-year waiting list. There is however a trick that allows you to bypass the waiting list and immediately obtain a house.”

The impact of self interest was startling:  if the story was seen as about themselves, the effects of power on moral judgment were reversed.  Those in power were much less likely to insist that the rules should be applied to themselves, while those who were powerless were much more likely to insist that the rules must be followed if they envisioned themselves actually placed in the moral dilemma.

According to Irish neuroscientist Ian H. Robertson, “Power has strong neurological effects on the brain and one of them is that power fosters moral exceptionalism, where rules are applied strenuously to other people. . .but the {same people}. . . feel themselves excepted from equivalent rules governing their conduct.”

Why this insight matters in conflict resolution practice:

When lawyers handle legal conflicts that arise out of an important but  fractured human relationship (think: divorce, will contests, small partnership dissolutions, family business disputes) it’s common for existing or perceived power dynamics in the relationship to become magnified during litigation and settlement negotiations.

Experienced lawyers know that the designated or self-designated powerless party may carry an exaggerated notion of the other party’s ability to dominate negotiations.  Such perceptions may feed reactive, fear-based choices of aggressive legal counsel as well as flooding of “fight-or flight” emotions during key events in the dispute resolution process, whether in court or at the negotiating table.

This research adds a more complex dimension to power dynamics at the negotiating table.  Collaborative law and other interest-based settlement modalities depend on transparency and good faith negotiating practices.  Could it be that in disputes between parties who display  significant power disparities, the more powerful party may be more susceptible to bending the rules for personal advantage than the process permits?  Could it be that the more powerful lawyer at the table may do the same?

Conversely, might the more powerless party be likelier to cherry-pick, insisting on legal rights and entitlements when the rules benefit him/her, while advocating for outcome-based solutions when the rules benefit the other party?

We don’t have firm answers to these questions, but the study should cause us to ask: What tools and techniques could we devise that might re-weight the  moral scales back toward transparency, clarity, and a level playing field?

We might begin by doing a little neuro-education, adapting Lammers’ study with moral dilemmas more closely related to legal negotiations, and presenting our clients with those  moral dilemmas when we prepare them for negotiating sessions.  If we sensitize ourselves and our clients to the dynamics of power through education, we can name the problem and perhaps mitigate the impact.

And of course, we can make use of priming ourselves, to re-balance the scales.

Look for ILI courses in Neuro-Resolution to earn CLE credits while learning more about priming and other realities at the intersection of neuroscience and conflict resolution practice.

Ask your bar association to bring ILI’s Neuro-Resolution courses to your community.

The study is:   Lammers, Joris et al  (2009) Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 97, 279-289.  Robertson discusses this study in his forthcoming book:  The Winner Effect: How Power Affects Your Brain, to be released in  October by St Martin’s Press.

Lying and Deceit in Negotiations: Gender May Matter

Which One(s) Are the Spin Doctors?

A disturbing report from the June 2012 issue of Scientific American suggests that in competitive negotiating situations, men are far likelier than women  to engage in deceptive practices –at least in situations involving their perceived masculine identity.  Two independent studies found that  men were consistently “more willing than women to engage in shady tactics: they were more accepting of techniques like making false promises, misrepresenting information, and sabotaging their opponents. This was especially true for men who believed that negotiation prowess was an innate and integral part of their masculine nature.”

One of the studies concluded that  “men’s moral judgments varied in such a way as to maximize their own advantage in each negotiation process; when necessary for personal gain, ethical missteps were acceptable. By contrast, women made similar ethical judgments across all perspectives. Even when the ethical choice was clearly detrimental to personal success, women maintained their ethical standards.”

I don’t write these reports or do the research; I just marvel at it.

A caveat:  the studies focused on competitive negotiation scenarios.  Failure in these historically male-dominated situations, the writer suggests, may be associated with diminished status, threat to professional rank, and – at least for some men – perceived weakness. The reporter proposes that “women may demonstrate similar vulnerabilities to their moral standards when faced with dilemmas that challenge their feminine competency or identity, or in arenas were women are (stereotypically) expected to be successful (e.g., skill as a mother, navigating social interactions, effectiveness as a writer).”

These studies shed light on the curiously matter-of-fact way in which many traditional lawyers accept puffery and downright misrepresentation during “courthouse steps” settlement negotiations as normal and appropriate ways to behave.

Could these studies also explain why the explosion of ADR settlement modalities in the legal profession during the last quarter of the 20th Century more or less parallels the explosion in female admissions to law school and to the practicing bar over that same period?

Just wondering….

The article is: When Men Are Less Moral Than Women By Cindi May  | Tuesday, June 19, 2012 |

 

 

The Price of Keeping Big Secrets

Even the words we use to describe secrecy suggest physical burdens:  we “keep” or “hold onto” or are “weighted down” by hiding important information from others.

A new series of studies reported in the March issue of the Journal of Experimental Psychology  investigated the physical impact of harboring important secrets, such as secrets concerning infidelity and sexual orientation.

“People who recalled, were preoccupied with, or suppressed an important secret estimated hills to be steeper, perceived distances to be farther, indicated that physical tasks would require more effort, and were less likely to help others with physical tasks. The more burdensome the secret and the more thought devoted to it, the more perception and action were influenced in a manner similar to carrying physical weight.”

As lawyers counsel clients about the costs of pursuing conflict resolution options that do or do not encourage transparency and personal responsibility, we would do well to include educating our clients about the hidden but predictable costs to physical and emotional health of choosing options that encourage or require  keeping burdensome secrets under wraps.