Why the Powerful Lie, Cheat and Steal

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The trial of former Sen. John Edwards, who is currently facing charges of allegedly diverting funds from his failed 2008 presidential campaign to his former mistress, Rielle Hunter, raises a question that comes up whenever any famous name pops up in the presses with news of underhanded conduct or outright malfeasance: Why are powerful people seemingly so powerless to prevent their own transgressions?

A study published in the journal Psychological Science in 2010 offers some explanation. From ScienceDaily:

"Researchers sought to determine whether power inspires hypocrisy, the tendency to hold high standards for others while performing morally suspect behaviors oneself. The research finds that power makes people stricter in moral judgment of others — while being less strict of their own behavior."

While this assertion may seem obvious at face value — and likely just as common among those who aren't rich and/or famous — the level of moral hypocrisy evident in the powerful and influential is greater than those who don't share these qualities, as suggested by the experiments conducted by the study's authors.

For their study, the researchers from the Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University assigned participants either "high-power" or "low-power" roles. Those in high-power roles were more likely not only to cheat, but also to criticize those in low-power roles who were engaging in the same behavior.

More from ScienceDaily:

"oral hypocrisy has its greatest impact among people who are legitimately powerful. In contrast, a fifth experiment demonstrated that people who don't feel personally entitled to their power are actually harder on themselves than they are on others, which is a phenomenon the researchers dubbed 'hypercrisy.'"

While a decision still has yet to be reached in the Edwards trial, there's no doubt that this won't be the last time we hear of a public figure who lets his/her influence and fame lead to the wrong decisions. If this study is any indication, it's inherent to the nature of the powerful.

Photo credit: Getty Images

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