Does power corrupt the mind? The influence of power on moral reasoning and self-interested behavior

Laura M. Giurge (First Author), Xue Zheng (Participant Author), Marius van Dijke (Participant Author), David De Cremer (Participant Author)

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We test whether leaders' power shapes their reasoning about moral issues and whether such moral reasoning subsequently influences leaders' display of self-interested behavior. We use an incentivized experiment to manipulate two components of leader power: power over more versus fewer followers and power to enforce one's will by having discretion over more versus fewer payout options to allocate between oneself and one's followers. We find that having power over more followers decreased leaders' principled moral reasoning, whereas having higher power to enforce one's will enabled leaders to engage in self-interested behavior. We also find suggestive evidence that power over increases self-interested behavior by decreasing principled moral reasoning; the effect of power to was not mediated by moral reasoning. These results illustrate that power activates self-interest within and outside the context in which power is held. They also show that moral reasoning is not a stable cognitive process, but that it might represent an additional path via which power affects self-interested behavior.
Original languageEnglish
JournalThe Leadership Quarterly
Issue number4
Publication statusPublished - 2021

Corresponding author email


  • Moral development
  • Moral reasoning
  • Power
  • Self-interested behavior

Indexed by

  • ABDC-A*
  • Scopus
  • SSCI


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