Organizations face critical choices when promoting people to powerful positions or empowering people with greater discretion.  A team of organizational behavior scientists examined the intersection of power and morality at work and reported about an important breakthrough recently. Their research results show that power predicts self-interested behavior differently depending upon moral identity.

Past research shows that power has a corruptive side.  This new research shows that power can reduce self-interested behavior.  Power can strengthen the relationship between moral identity and moral awareness.  Power both corrupts people and enables them to benefit the common good.  Power corrupts people with a low moral identity.  Power enables people with a high moral identity to benefit the common good.  The investigators incorporated prior research which defined “moral identity” as a self-conception organized around a set of nine traits:  caring, compassionate, fair, friendly, generous, helpful, hardworking, honest and kind (Aquino & Reed, 2002).

The authors rightly claim “Our research has important practical implications.”  Since law firms and other professional services firms suffer the same consequences as other organizations when the corruptive influence of power mediates interpersonal and organizational deviance, it is just as important that those organizations work with their members to develop their moral identity.


When and why a person will advance self-interest over the common good has important implications for organizations and their members.  Four (4) concepts come into play in this arena:  self-interested behavior; moral identity; moral awareness; and power.  The authors integrated theories from past research and proposed a model of power and moral identity on self-interested behavior.  According to them, “research on moral identity has yet to explicate how situational factors, such as power, shape the effect that moral identity has on self-interested behavior.”

The authors defined self-interested behavior as “actions that benefit the self and come at a cost to the common good”.  The second concept is defined as follows:  “Moral identity is the extent to which an individual holds morality as part of his or her self-concept, and it has been shown to influence the degree to which people emphasize their own versus others’ needs”.   A person shows “moral awareness”, a subject with limited empirical research, according to the authors, by recognizing the implications of and moral contents of a situation.  The researchers define the final concept, power, as “a psychological state associated with perceiving control, which generates certain action tendencies and affective and cognitive changes.”

Prior research has shown that power presents organizations a paradox related to self-interested behavior.  According to the authors, a common belief, which decades of research supports, is that power corrupts and the powerful have negative impact on the common good.  Other studies, however, have shown that power can increase interpersonal sensitivity, which perhaps can result in the powerful placing emphasis on the needs others instead of their own needs.  Research studies, according to the authors, have not examined how situational factors, such as power, shape the effect that moral identity has on self-interested behavior.  This study attempts to address that gap.

Theory and Hypotheses

This research study concerns the psychological experience of power, and not the objective possession of power.  As such, power generates actions and tendencies as well as changes in thoughts and feelings.  The causes of the psychological experience can relate to having control over resources, having greater autonomy and discretion, or having higher status.  According to the study authors, one line of research suggests that power affects behavior indirectly because it activates underlying traits or attributes.  The researchers therefore theorized that “power interacts with an individual’s moral identity to determine whether individuals engage in behavior that is more or less self-interested.”  People with high moral identities will, based on this theory, have more readily available moral concepts accessible mental structures relative to people with low moral identities when they experience feelings of power.

Another concept, “moral awareness”, has an important role in the theory behind this research study.  A number of studies show that people have cognitive concepts in their mental structures which influence how they interpret information.  The authors suggest that “it follows that people with high moral identities will have more readily available moral concepts in their accessible mental structures and that when experiencing feelings of power, they will be more aware of the moral implications of the situation relative to those with lower moral identity.”

The researchers theorized that people with higher moral identities likely have greater moral awareness.  People with greater moral awareness, they argue, engage in less self-interested behavior when feeling powerful.  This results, they argue, because they are especially aware of the moral implications of their actions.  The converse is that persons feeling powerful, but with lower moral awareness see no problem with acting to benefit themselves at the expense of others.  They theorized “that the power-moral identity interaction will affect behavior by increasing or decreasing an individual’s moral awareness of a given situation.”

The two (2) hypotheses tested in the research study about mediated power and moral identity on self-interested behavior are stated:

  1. Moral identity and power will interact to influence self-interested behavior, such that the relationship between power and self-interested behavior will be negative when moral identity is high and positive when moral identity is low.
  2. The interactive effect described in Hypothesis 1. will be mediated by individuals’ moral awareness of the situation.

Methods, Measures, Results and Discussions

In Study 1, 173 working adults from a wide range of industries participated.  The researchers measured their trait power [8 item measure], moral identity [5 item moral identity scale], psychological experience of power [narrative essay graded by coders], and two specific forms of self-interested behavior [dictator game involving self-interest and interest of others; and a 3 item organizational deviance assessment].  The resulting descriptive statistics and related analyses revealed “For participants with a high moral identity, power was negatively related to self-interested behavior, but for those with low moral identity there was a positive association between power and self-interested behavior.”  According to the researchers, “These results confirm that moral identity moderates the relationship between power and self-interested behavior across both self-reported organizational deviance and actual behavior in a controlled decision-making exercise and across both trait and manipulated power.”

In Study 2, the researchers sought to test the actual mechanism behind the effect found in Study 1.  In this two phase experiment 102 undergraduate students participated.  Phase 1 involved an online questionnaire that included a consent form, the same 5 item moral identity measure from Study 1, and demographic questions.  For Phase 2, which occurred one week later, the participants came to a computer lab.  In the second phase, the participants had to decide how much to take from a common resource for themselves versus leaving for others.  The research team measured the participants’ moral awareness in terms of their statements about the common pool game they played in phase 2 by using a validated 3 item scale.   The resulting descriptive statistics and related analyses revealed that “high moral identity is associated with less self-interested behavior but low moral identity is associated with greater self-interested behavior under conditions of high power.”  The researchers found that moral identity moderated the relationship between power and moral awareness.  When moral identity was high, the relationship between power and moral awareness was positive.  When moral identity was low, the association between power and moral awareness was low.

General Discussion and Application

The researchers examined the intersection of power and morality at work.  The researchers summarize their work by stating that their “research demonstrates how power and moral identity interact to explain individuals’ moral awareness and self-interested behavior.”  The research team integrated the power literature with that on moral identity and in establishing the mechanism of moral awareness made an important discovery:  power predicts self-interested behavior differently depending on moral identity.

The study findings demonstrate the crucial influence effect of moral identity, which helps to explain when power, either as trait or psychological experience, will decrease or increase the likelihood of self-interested behavior.  Power can reduce self-interested behavior due its strengthening of the relationship between moral identity and moral awareness.  Moral identity and power shape how people process morally relevant situational information.  People with a lower moral identity, when feeling powerful, are likely to be more self-interested than those with higher moral identities.  This self-interested power mediated behavior results because they are “less aware of the moral implications of their behavior, not necessarily because they are bad people.”

The study also makes headway into explaining the paradox of power.  Power corrupts people.  Power also enables people to benefit the common good.  These paradoxical results occur because power corrupts people with a low moral identity and it enables people with a high moral identity.  About the latter, the authors state “it is especially important to demonstrate that those with strong moral self-concepts, when given power, will increasingly behave in ways that benefit the common good versus their own interests.”

This research, according to the authors, has important practical applications.  Organizations look to promote people from within to more powerful positions.  Organizations also empower their members with greater discretion.  A couple of observations apply here.  The authors suggest that “understanding how central morality is to the person’s self-concept will be a critical consideration for predicting whether that person will engage in self-serving behavior.”  Also, for those already in positions of power, or who already show power, the authors suggest that “it is important that organizations work to develop their moral identity.”

Choices. . . .

Law firms, and other professional service firms, must put the client’s interest ahead of the firm’s interests.  The rules of professional responsibility prescribe that hierarchy.  That arrangement protects the client.  Leaders of law firms and professional service firms should take note of this important research.

The psychological experience of power as described by the researchers is part and parcel of the practice of law and other professional service fields.  Law firms must therefore endeavor to promote or empower those who are the most caring, compassionate, fair, friendly, generous, helpful, hardworking, honest and kind relative to available choices.  Failure to do so can be seen as a compromise favoring self-interest which not only puts the firm’s ability to protect the client’s interests at great risk, but also invites the disastrous effects of the corruption of power.

Source:  DeCelles KA, DeRue DS, Margolis JD, & Ceranic TL (2012). Does power corrupt or enable? When and why power facilitates self-interested behavior. The Journal of applied psychology, 97 (3), 681-9 PMID: 22250668.  The article can be accessed at the personal webpage of the lead author, Dr. Katherine A. DeCelles, Ph.D., Assistant Professor of Organizational Behavior and Human Resource Management, Rotman School of Management, University of Toronto See Webpage.

Other referenced source:  Aquino, K., & Reed, A. II. (2002). The self-importance of moral identity. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 83(6), 1423-1440. doi:10.1037/0022-3514.83.6.1423.

Thank you for visiting Psycholawlogy,  Please let me know if you have any comments, questions, or suggestions for this post, topic, or any other topic of interest for future posts.  Contact me through my webpage at Adlitem Solutions, or email me directly at

Dan DeFoe

Owner and Lead consultant at Adlitem Solutions
I'm an attorney with 20+ years of experience and have an MS degree in organizational development psychology. I provide normal personality and emotional intelligence assessments, assessment interpretation and feedback, and professional development planning and training activities for lawyers, judges, other legal services providers, and their organizations.

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