Woe is me (but maybe not you): How powerful people experience injustice

Powerful people may well be sensitive to injustice and unfairness, but a recent study shows that they are much more likely to feel this way if they are the alleged victims.

Tom Jacobs, writing for Pacific Standard magazine, reports on research suggesting that “people who perceive themselves as powerful are faster to detect injustice — but only in situations where they are the apparent victims.” Psychologist Takuya Sawaoka (Stanford) led the study (published in the Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin), which included an online survey and several controlled experiments.

Dr. Sawaoka told Pacific Standard that because “powerful people more strongly expect to receive fair outcomes, they are faster to perceive unfair situations that violate those expectations.” Accordingly, they may “react more quickly against unfair treatment, and maintain their hold on power.”

The Stanford study fits comfortably with other observations and findings on the effects of power and hierarchy. Executives and senior managers are more likely to demonstrate higher levels of narcissism and lower levels of empathy. In other words, they’re very attuned to themselves, but they care much less about the experiences of others.

Granted, these studies reveal statistical likelihoods that do not apply to every CEO or boss. There are plenty of good ones out there. That said, growing evidence suggests that people with certain personality traits are more likely to successfully climb up the greasy pole and that less-than-wonderful outlooks on the world may harden once they make it up there.

All of which helps to explain the current state of many workplaces, the growing gap between the wealthy and everyone else, and a political and economic system rigged to preserve these inequities.

2 responses

  1. “In other words, they’re very attuned to themselves, but they care much less about the experiences of others.”

    Many of these individuals are delighted to work with people who are similarly attuned to their narcissistic needs- hence the observed advancement of sycophants and toadies while more capable, ethical, and honest employees are passed over. Doesn’t take long for a dysfunctional workplace culture to take root under those conditions. And heaven help the truth-telling whistleblower who points out that the emperor has no clothes.

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