Does power turn people into lockdown rulebreakers?

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By Dr Grigorios Lamprinakos
Research Fellow, Lloyds Banking Group Centre for Responsible Business

The COVID-19 crisis has seen a whole new set of rules put into effect on lockdown, social distancing, face-covering and handwashing, affecting every part of our lives. The assumption underpinning these rules seems to be that the population are rational rule-followers, who value long-term social wellbeing over their own short-term satisfaction.

However, when confronted with reality, we can quickly see that this isn’t the case for everyone – including some of society’s most prominent and powerful individuals. While for most people breaking the rules costs them emotionally, cognitively, and physiologically, several lines of psychological research suggest not everyone experiences the same detrimental effects.

The mere experience of any form of power seems to enhance the same emotional, cognitive, and physiological systems depleted by an act of transgression. Individuals experiencing power have more intense positive emotions, increased cognitive function and physiological resilience to stress, such as lower levels of the stress hormone cortisol.

Based on that notion, there is an abundance of evidence showing that power leads to anti-social behavior, such as crime, aggressive and hostile behavior, and reckless behavior, like drink-driving – or even perhaps driving to beautiful castles to test one’s eyesight in the middle of a pandemic lockdown?

So, are we to assume that being powerful enhances antisocial behavior? If only it were that simple! Parallel lines of research have shown that experiencing power may also lead to positive, pro-social outcomes, such as increased diligence and forgiveness of others.

The answer according to self-validation theory – a relatively new theory of cognitive psychology – is that power can turn you both into a ‘hero’ and a ‘villain’, depending on what your predisposition is. Why is that? Because power validates the thoughts that people already possess, increasing confidence in the perceived validity of those thoughts and subsequently turning them into behavior. So experiencing power when you feel pro-social will reveal the ‘hero’ inside you, but might also turn you into a ‘villain’ if you’re feeling antisocial.

Life isn’t always black and white or right and wrong, though. We all feel empowered when we’re about to make a decision of any kind, and there are certain occasions when following the rules can be too complicated or easy to ignore. In supermarkets right now, for example, people often ignore the carefully thought-through one-way system to pick something they’ve decided to buy from a shelf.

Ultimately, any rules to guide people through the pandemic are confronted by messy reality. Humans are behavioural beings and as such never perfectly rational. The more complex the forest of rules and messages gets, the more difficult it is for people to be perfect rule-followers. And while simple messaging can certainly help check people’s behaviour, allowing ‘room for interpretation’ can undermine their effect.

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