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.

Clients Want Integrative Lawyering

Michael Lerner, an early MacArthur fellowship winner, founder of Commonweal, and founder of The New School at Commonweal, spoke in March with Pauline Tesler, director of the Integrative Law Institute.  Michael is an extraordinarily gifted interviewer whose questions and comments showed deep understanding of the challenges facing lawyers who work with individuals and families in personal disputes.

The audience in attendance listened with curiosity and afterward expressed amazement at hearing an experienced lawyer tell the truth about what’s wrong with delivery of legal services to people experiencing predictable human conflicts in their families and communities.

It was easy to hear the undercurrent of distrust and dislike for the legal profession imbedded in their questions and comments. Just as apparent was the desire to know more and to learn how to find an integrative lawyer for themselves or their families when seemingly irreconcilable conflicts arise.

That hunger for constructive, resolution-oriented, humanistic legal conflict resolution services is a driving force for ILI’s programming.   ILI offers certification in Integrative Legal Conflict  Resolution for lawyers who attend its continuing education programs.  The certification program will help lawyers build effective social media strategies so that they can be found by  potential clients when a lawyer’s counsel is needed.

A podcast of the conversation is available at the New School’s website..