Full Program »
Perils of Power: Perceived Culpability of Powerholders After Ambiguous Transgressions
Power comes with numerous advantages, including preferential access to resources, respect, and favorable health outcomes. Here, we investigated a potential downside of power: that powerholders’ privileges and behavioral leeway paradoxically render them more vulnerable to accusations of wrongdoing. In a series of within-subjects studies, participants who read about cases of financial misconduct (Study 1a), sexual harassment (Study 1b), and faulty parking (Study 1c) involving both high- and low-power suspects rated the higher-power suspects as the more likely perpetrators than the lower-power suspects. In between-subjects replications involving the same transgressions (Studies 2a-2c) we probed three possible underlying mechanisms: perceived volitional capacity, entitlement, and impunity. Participants who read about a high-power suspect were more likely to deem the person guilty than were those who read about a low-power suspect. Effects were mediated by the perception that powerholders believe they can get away with anything (perceived impunity). In Study 3, participants were confronted with untruthful reports of (incentivized) die rolls of another player in a lab experiment. Participants were more likely to think the untruthful reports came from the player in the role of boss than from the player in the role of assistant (mediated by perceived impunity), and they desired greater punishment of the boss than of the assistant. These findings indicate that power not only comes with perks, but also with perils in the form of perceived culpability.