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How Power and Powerlessness Corrupt

Andy Yap, 2013
Faculty Advisor: E. Tory Higgins


This dissertation examines how and when, both powerfulness and powerlessness, can each lead to corrupt behavior. The first half of this dissertation (Chapters 2 to 5) focuses on the link between power and corrupt behavior. Building on previous work that expansive posture induces a state of power, four studies tested whether expansive posture incidentally imposed by our environment lead to increases in dishonest behavior. Chapters 2 to 4 present three experiments, which found that powerful individuals were more likely to steal money, cheat on a test, and commit traffic violations in a driving simulation. Results suggested that participants' self-reported sense of power mediated the link between postural expansiveness and dishonesty. In an observational field study, Chapter 5 revealed that automobiles with more expansive driver's seats were more likely to be illegally parked on New York City streets.

The second part of the dissertation examines if powerlessness can lead to corrupt behavior. Chapters 6 to 10 present a new theoretical model that comprehensively integrates theories on power and regulatory focus. This model reveals that both powerfulness and powerlessness can each lead to corrupt behavior, but through different routes. Three experiments in Chapters 7 to 9 found that prevention-powerlessness and promotion-powerfulness produce more corrupt behavior than promotion-powerlessness and prevention-powerfulness, as evident in individuals' tendency to exploit others, aggression, and dishonest behavior. I also found evidence for the affective manifestations that accompany these effects. Indeed, a meta-analysis on the data suggests that prevention-powerlessness and promotion-powerfulness significantly produced more corrupt behavior than prevention-powerfulness and promotion-powerlessness. These findings have important theoretical implications for power and regulatory focus, and explicate how powerlessness can lead to taking action and even corruption.

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