Ample evidence documents that power increases unethical behavior. This article introduces a new theoretical framework for understanding when power leads to more versus less unethical behavior. Our key proposition is that people hold expectations about power that are both descriptive (how the powerful do behave) and prescriptive (how the powerful should behave). People hold descriptive beliefs that the powerful do behave more unethically than the powerless, but they hold prescriptive beliefs that the powerful should behave more ethically than the powerless. Whichever expectation—descriptive or prescriptive—is salient affects how power influences one’s behavior. Three experiments demonstrate that activating descriptive expectations for power leads the powerful to cheat more than the powerless, whereas activating prescriptive expectations leads the powerful to cheat less than the powerless. The current work offers new ideas for curbing unethical behavior by those with power: focus their attention on prescriptive expectations for power.
- descriptive and prescriptive expectations
- unethical behavior
ASJC Scopus subject areas
- Social Psychology