Ends and Means

Kevin Lewis

November 01, 2020

Theories of power: Perceived strategies for gaining and maintaining power
Leanne ten Brinke & Dacher Keltner
Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, forthcoming


What does it take to gain and maintain power? Aristotle believed that power was afforded to individuals that acted in virtuous ways that promote the greater good. Machiavelli, nearly 2,000 years later, argued to great effect that power could be taken through the use of manipulation, coercion, and strategic violence. With these historical perspectives as a conceptual foundation, we validate a 2-factor measure of theories of power (TOPS; Study 1), which captures lay theories of how power is gained and maintained among family members, at work, and in international politics (Study 2). We differentiate TOPS from other established measures of power, highlighting that these beliefs about power are conceptually distinct from widely used measures of dominance and prestige, and uniquely predict social outcomes. Turning to social class, we find that participants who make upward social comparisons perceive themselves to be of lower class and endorse less collaborative and more coercive theories of power, relative to those who make downward comparisons and report themselves to be higher in the class hierarchy (Studies 3a and 3b). Building upon these findings, we identify theory of power endorsement as a correlate of interpersonal trust, and a mediator of how lower class individuals, who endorse less collaborative views of power, report less trust of institutions and individuals (Study 4). Theories of power provide a novel construct for understanding power dynamics at multiple levels of analysis.

The Worst-Motive Fallacy: A Negativity Bias in Motive Attribution
Joel Walmsley & Cathal O'Madagain
Psychological Science, forthcoming


In this article, we describe a hitherto undocumented fallacy - in the sense of a mistake in reasoning - constituted by a negativity bias in the way that people attribute motives to others. We call this the "worst-motive fallacy," and we conducted two experiments to investigate it. In Experiment 1 (N = 323), participants expected protagonists in a variety of fictional vignettes to pursue courses of action that satisfy the protagonists' worst motive, and furthermore, participants significantly expected the protagonist to pursue a worse course of action than they would prefer themselves. Experiment 2 (N = 967) was a preregistered attempted replication of Experiment 1, including a bigger range of vignettes; the first effect was not replicated for the new vignettes tested but was for the original set. Also, we once again found that participants expected protagonists to be more likely than they were themselves to pursue courses of action that they considered morally bad. We discuss the worst-motive fallacy's relation to other well-known biases as well as its possible evolutionary origins and its ethical (and meta-ethical) consequences.

Formidability and socioeconomic status uniquely predict militancy and political moral foundations
Mitch Brown, Kristine Chua & Aaron Lukaszewski
Personality and Individual Differences, forthcoming


Previous research demonstrates positive associations between physical formidability and endorsement of conservative social policies entailing aggressive competition and hierarchical inequality. Similar ideological differences are associated with coalitional status. The current research extended findings by testing associations of formidability and coalitional status with individual differences in endorsement of dimensions identified by Moral Foundations Theory: "individualizing" foundations (care, fairness) and "binding" foundations (loyalty, purity, respect). Participants (N = 381) provided various measures of physical formidability and socioeconomic status before responding to the Moral Foundations Questionnaire and a militancy scale. Formidability was negatively associated with endorsing individualizing foundations, whereas socioeconomic status was positively associated with endorsing binding foundations. Formidability and socioeconomic status both positively predicted militancy. Contrary to previous research, associations emerged across men and women. Findings suggest psychological calculi of perceived self-interest shape political morality.

Can good followers create unethical leaders? How follower citizenship leads to leader moral licensing and unethical behavior
Ghufran Ahmad, Anthony Klotz & Mark Bolino
Journal of Applied Psychology, forthcoming


Whereas the study of leadership has generally focused on how leaders influence the behavior of their followers, this article focuses on how and when the behaviors of followers can influence leaders' behavior. Specifically, we use moral licensing theory to examine the possibility that positive follower behavior could lead to unethical behavior by leaders. Across a pilot study, 2 experiments, and 1 field study, our findings suggest that when their followers perform organizational citizenship behaviors, leaders are more likely to grant themselves moral credit to behave unethically. Moreover, we find that leaders are especially likely to gain moral credit as a result of followers' good deeds when leader narcissism is high or when they identify with their followers. Together, these studies provide evidence that good behavior on the part of followers may psychologically free leaders to engage in subsequent unethical behavior, thereby contributing to our understanding of how followers can influence leader behavior and how vicarious moral licensing operates in organizational contexts.

On the relation of boredom and sadistic aggression
Stefan Pfattheicher et al.
Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, forthcoming


What gives rise to sadism? While sadistic behavior (i.e., harming others for pleasure) is well-documented, past empirical research is nearly silent regarding the psychological factors behind it. We help close this gap by suggesting that boredom plays a crucial role in the emergence of sadistic tendencies. Across 9 diverse studies, we provide correlational and experimental evidence for a link between boredom and sadism. We demonstrate that sadistic tendencies are more pronounced among people who report chronic proneness to boredom in everyday life (Studies 1A-1F, N = 1,780). We then document that this relationship generalizes across a variety of important societal contexts, including online trolling; sadism in the military; sadistic behavior among parents; and sadistic fantasies (Studies 2-5, N = 1,740). Finally, we manipulate boredom experimentally and show that inducing boredom increases sadistic behavior (i.e., killing worms; destroying other participants' pay; Studies 6-9, N = 4,097). However, alternatives matter: When several behavioral alternatives are available, boredom only motivates sadistic behavior among individuals with high dispositional sadism (Study 7). Conversely, when there is no alternative, boredom increases sadistic behavior across the board, even among individuals low in dispositional sadism (Studies 8 and 9). We further show that excitement and novelty seeking mediate the effects of boredom, and that boredom not only promotes sadistic (proactive) aggression, but reactive aggression as well (Study 9). Overall, the present work contributes to a better understanding of sadism and highlights the destructive potential of boredom. We discuss implications for basic research on sadism and boredom, as well as applied implications for society at large.

The Emotional Path to Action: Empathy Promotes Physical Distancing and Wearing of Face Masks During the COVID-19 Pandemic
Stefan Pfattheicher et al.
Psychological Science, forthcoming


The COVID-19 pandemic presents a major challenge to societies all over the globe. Two measures implemented in many countries to curb the spread of the disease are (a) minimizing close contact between people ("physical distancing") and (b) wearing of face masks. In the present research, we tested the idea that physical distancing and wearing of face masks can be the result of a prosocial emotional process - empathy for people most vulnerable to the virus. In four preregistered studies (N = 3,718, Western population), we found that (a) empathy indeed relates to the motivation to adhere to physical distancing and to wearing face masks and (b) inducing empathy for people most vulnerable to the virus promotes the motivation to adhere to these measures (whereas merely providing information about the importance of the measures does not). In sum, the present research provides a better understanding of the factors underlying the willingness to follow two important measures during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Utilitarianism for animals, Kantianism for people? Harming animals and humans for the greater good
Lucius Caviola et al.
Journal of Experimental Psychology: General, forthcoming


Most people hold that it is wrong to sacrifice some humans to save a greater number of humans. Do people also think that it is wrong to sacrifice some animals to save a greater number of animals, or do they answer such questions about harm to animals by engaging in a utilitarian cost-benefit calculation? Across 10 studies (N = 4,662), using hypothetical and real-life sacrificial moral dilemmas, we found that participants considered it more permissible to harm a few animals to save a greater number of animals than to harm a few humans to save a greater number of humans. This was explained by a reduced general aversion to harm animals compared with humans, which was partly driven by participants perceiving animals to suffer less and to have lower cognitive capacity than humans. However, the effect persisted even in cases where animals were described as having greater suffering capacity and greater cognitive capacity than some humans, and even when participants felt more socially connected to animals than to humans. The reduced aversion to harming animals was thus also partly due to speciesism - the tendency to ascribe lower moral value to animals due to their species-membership alone. In sum, our studies show that deontological constraints against instrumental harm are not absolute but get weaker the less people morally value the respective entity. These constraints are strongest for humans, followed by dogs, chimpanzees, pigs, and finally inanimate objects.

Neighbourhood wealth, not urbanicity, predicts prosociality towards strangers
Elena Zwirner & Nichola Raihani
Proceedings of the Royal Society: Biological Sciences, October 2020


Urbanization is perhaps the most significant and rapid cause of demographic change in human societies, with more than half the world's population now living in cities. Urban lifestyles have been associated with increased risk for mental disorders, greater stress responses, and lower trust. However, it is not known whether a general tendency towards prosocial behaviour varies across the urban-rural gradient, or whether other factors such as neighbourhood wealth might be more predictive of variation in prosocial behaviour. Here, we present findings from three real-world experiments conducted in 37 different neighbourhoods, in 12 cities and 12 towns and villages across the UK. We measured whether people: (i) posted a lost letter; (ii) returned a dropped item; and (iii) stopped to let someone cross the road in each neighbourhood. We expected to find that people were less willing to help a stranger in more urban locations, with increased diffusion of responsibility and perceived anonymity in cities being measured as variables that might drive this effect. Our data did not support this hypothesis. There was no effect of either urbanicity or population density on people's willingness to help a stranger. Instead, the neighbourhood level of deprivation explained most of the variance in helping behaviour with help being offered less frequently in more deprived neighbourhoods. These findings highlight the importance of socio-economic factors, rather than urbanicity per se, in shaping variation in prosocial behaviour in humans.

Anthropocentric biases in teleological thinking: How nature seems designed for humans
Jesse Preston & Faith Shin
Journal of Experimental Psychology: General, forthcoming


People frequently see design in nature that reflects intuitive teleological thinking - that is, the order in nature that supports life suggests it was designed for that purpose. This research proposes that inferences are stronger when nature supports human life specifically. Five studies (N = 1,788) examine evidence for an anthro-teleological bias. People agreed more with design statements framed to aid humans (e.g., "Trees produce oxygen so that humans can breathe") than the same statements framed to aid other targets (e.g., "Trees produce oxygen so that leopards can breathe"). The bias was greatest when advantages for humans were well-known and salient (e.g., the ozone layer) and decreased when advantages for other targets were made explicit. The bias was not eliminated by highlighting the benefits for other species, however, and emerged spontaneously for novel phenomena ("Jupiter's gravity protects Earth from asteroids"). We conclude that anthropocentric biases enhance existing teleological biases to see stronger design in phenomena where it enables human survival.

Does inappropriate behavior hurt or stink? The interplay between neural representations of somatic experiences and moral decisions
Gil Sharvit et al.
Science Advances, October 2020


Embodied models suggest that moral judgments are strongly intertwined with first-hand somatic experiences, with some pointing to disgust, and others arguing for a role of pain/harm. Both disgust and pain are unpleasant, arousing experiences, with strong relevance for survival, but with distinctive sensory qualities and neural channels. Hence, it is unclear whether moral cognition interacts with sensory-specific properties of one somatic experience or with supramodal dimensions common to both. Across two experiments, participants evaluated ethical dilemmas and subsequently were exposed to disgusting (olfactory) or painful (thermal) stimulations of matched unpleasantness. We found that moral scenarios enhanced physiological and neural activity to subsequent disgust (but not pain), as further supported by an independently validated whole-brain signature of olfaction. This effect was mediated by activity in the posterior cingulate cortex triggered by dilemma judgments. Our results thus speak in favor of an association between moral cognition and sensory-specific properties of disgust.


from the


A weekly newsletter with free essays from past issues of National Affairs and The Public Interest that shed light on the week's pressing issues.


to your National Affairs subscriber account.

Already a subscriber? Activate your account.


Unlimited access to intelligent essays on the nation’s affairs.

Subscribe to National Affairs.