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Thursday, November 24, 2022

Powerlessness Also Corrupts: Lower Power Increases Self-Promotional Lying

Li, H.(., Chen, Y., & Hildreth, J.A. (2022).
Organization Science.


The popular maxim holds that power corrupts, and research to date supports the view that power increases self-interested unethical behavior. However, we predict the opposite effect when unethical behavior, specifically lying, helps an individual self-promote: lower rather than higher power increases self-promotional lying. Drawing from compensatory consumption theory, we propose that this effect occurs because lower power people feel less esteemed in their organizations than do higher power people. To compensate for this need to view themselves as esteemed members of their organizations, lower power individuals are more likely to inflate their accomplishments. Evidence from four studies supports our predictions: compared with those with higher power, executives with lower power in their organizations were more likely to lie about their work achievements (Study 1, n = 230); graduate students with lower power in their Ph.D. studies were more likely to lie about their publication records (Study 2, n = 164); and employees with lower power were more likely to lie about having signed a business contract (Studies 3 and 4). Mediation analyses suggest that lower power increased lying because lower power individuals feel lower esteem in their organizations (Study 3, n = 562). Further supporting this mechanism, a self-affirmation intervention reduced the effect of lower power on self-promotional lying (Study 4, n = 536). These converging findings show that, when lies are self-promotional, lower power can be more corruptive than higher power.


The popular maxim that power corrupts has long held sway over the public imagination, but recently, scholarly research has challenged the universality of this maxim and added an important modifier: power corrupts when corruption is selfish in nature. In the current research, we drive another nail into this maxim’s coffin, finding that lower rather than higher power can increase certain self-interested unethical behaviors.  Specifically, we find that lower power increases self-promotional lying because it triggers the aversive feeling of low esteem. Therefore, the effects of power on corruption depend critically on the motivations underlying a particular unethical behavior. Even when corruption is self-interested in nature, power need not always corrupt.