In the October issue of Smithsonian magazine, a small feature about the nature of power caught my eye. A recent study, published in the Journal of Applied Psychology, found that “people’s sense of ‘moral identity’…shaped their responses to feelings of power,” according to the article. Already primed as groups to think either about a situation in which they felt powerful or simply an ordinary day, participants (specifically undergraduates) in the study were then asked to consider themselves in a pool of people angling for points, with a $100 lottery at stake. The more points taken, the better the odds, but an unknown threshold dictated that taking too many would spoil the game for everyone. Of those who had written about a time when they felt powerful, those who had a low moral-identity score (based on self-ratings of certain ethically centric attributes) took more points than those who had a high moral-identity score (7.5 points versus 5.5). It was determined that it was the 5.5 group that had a “broader, more communally centered perspective.” Power, the study found, simply “heightens pre-existing ethical tendencies.”
It’s not very often that one finds an argument to be made correlating power with ethics or morality, particularly in today’s society. In fact, many are led to believe that the two are in direct opposition. Power rhymes with ruthlessness, not compassion. But, as the world becomes ever more connected and interdependent, power as a conduit or agent of an ethical perspective is an intriguing and not all together implausible concept.
Consider future generations. Paul Tough’s oft-discussed new book How Children Succeed makes a convincing case for the fundamental need for character education in today’s schools, particularly as a means of preparing children for success towards and into college. While reading the book I wondered how encouraging character-building early could serve kids after college. This study seems to suggest that a foundation of ethical behavior and ideals—fairness, generosity, conscientiousness—will help young adults to wisely navigate positions of influence and import. As they mature within a more tolerant, inclusive and progressive society, today’s children could prove that power doesn’t have to be at the expense of others, but instead a collaboration of the many.