|I'm sure that the owner of this car is a good person.|
The Economist, 1843 Magazine
"In some experiments Keltner and his collaborators put participants from a variety of income brackets to the test; in others, they “primed” subjects to feel less powerful or more powerful by asking them to think about people more or less powerful than themselves, or to think about times when they felt strong or weak. The results all stacked the same way. People who felt powerful were less likely to be empathetic; wealthy subjects were more likely to cheat in games involving small cash stakes and to dip their fists into a jar of sweets marked for the use of visiting children. When watching a video about childhood cancer they displayed fewer physiological signs of empathy.
Similar results occurred even when the privilege under observation had no meaning beyond the experiment room. Rigged games of Monopoly were set up in which one player took a double salary and rolled with two dice instead of one: winners failed to acknowledge their unfair advantage and reported that they had triumphed through merit. In another study, volunteers were divided into bosses and workers and set to work on an administrative task. When a plate of biscuits was brought into the room, the managers reached for twice as many as the managed. “Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely,” said Lord Acton in 1887. Here was the evidence, lab-tested, that it also awakened the Cookie Monster within.
Acton’s pronouncement on power was a response to a specific 19th-century event – the Vatican’s decision, in 1870, to adopt the doctrine of papal infallibility. When 20th-century social scientists began studying the moral conduct of powerful people, they did it in reaction to the absolutism of their own age. In 1956 the sociologist C. Wright Mills published “The Power Elite”, an account of American society that shocked a generation: partly because it suggested the country was controlled by self-sustaining cliques of military, political and corporate men; partly because Mills modelled his work on an earlier study of the social and political hierarchies of Nazi Germany. Three years later, Pitirim Sorokin, founder of Harvard’s sociology department and a refugee from Lenin’s Russia, published “Power and Morality”, which proposed that the individuals described by Mills were not just self-interested, but sick. “Taken as a whole,” he wrote, “the ruling groups are more talented intellectually and more deranged mentally than the ruled population.”
When Keltner and his colleagues published an influential paper on the subject in 2010, three European academics, Martin Korndörfer, Stefan Schmukle and Boris Egloff, wondered if it would be possible to reproduce the findings of small lab-based experiments using much larger sets of data from surveys carried out by the German state. The idea was to see whether this information, which documented what people said they did in everyday life, would offer the same picture of human behaviour as results produced in the lab. “We simply wanted to replicate their results,” says Boris Egloff, “which seemed very plausible to us and fine in every possible sense.” The crunched numbers, however, declined to fit the expected patterns. Taken cumulatively, they suggested the opposite. Privileged individuals, the data suggested, were proportionally more generous to charity than their poorer fellow citizens; more likely to volunteer; more likely to help a traveller struggling with a suitcase or to look after a neighbour’s cat.
Egloff and his colleagues wrote up their findings and sent them to the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, which had also published Keltner’s work. “We thought,” says Egloff, “naive as we were, that this might be interesting for the scientific community.” The paper was rejected. They extended their analysis to data from America and other countries, and felt confident that they had identified several more pieces that didn’t fit the jigsaw being assembled by their American peers. They argued that psychology’s consensus view on social status and ethical behaviour did not exist in other disciplines, and concluded with a quiet plea for more research in this area. Their paper was rejected again. Last July, it eventually found a home in a peer-reviewed online journal.
Egloff has been doing research since 1993 and is used to the bloody process of peer review. But he was shocked by the hostility towards his work. “I am not on a crusade,” he says. “I am not rich. My family is not rich. My friends are not rich. We never received any money from any party for doing this research. Personally I would have loved the results of the Berkeley group to be true. That would be nice and would provide a better fit to my personal and political beliefs and my worldview. However, as a scientist…” The experience of going against this particular intellectual grain was so painful that Egloff vows never to study the topic of privilege and ethics again."