Study: To Prevent Abuse of Power, Focus on Procedure, Not Results

If there's one thing that unites the good guys in movies and TV shows, it's a hatred of "procedure"—those legal niceties that get the bad guys out of jail and prevent the hero from finding the bomb in time. Who cares about regulations? Results are what matters. And it's not, of course, a sentiment confined to screenplays: Any news about terrorism or potential terrorism is followed by the cawing of pols and pundits trying to sound like Dirty Harry. Keep Guantanamo open! Don't stop water-boarding! Don't read Dzhokhar Tsarnaev his rights! Be glad the NSA is secretly monitoring everyone's phone calls! This is war—no time to be worrying about crossing t's and dotting i's! It's an easy message to sell in a fearful time (those movies primed us well for it). But according to this study in a recent issue of the Journal of Applied Psychology, it encourages abuses of power.


In a trio of experiments, the authors, Marko Pitesa of Grenoble's Ecole de Management and Stefan Thau of the London Business School, found that people who expected to be judged on the results of their decisions were far more likely to abuse the trust placed in them than were people who expected to be judged on the procedures they used to decide.

In one experiment, for example, they organized 61 male and 43 female undergraduates (presumably from Grenoble) into six-person groups, in which some were informed that they would be "in charge" and others told they would be expected to "work with others." While they waited for their teammates to arrive, each student was given a task, supposedly to fill the time. The task (which was in fact the real experiment) was to manage the money their group would receive for being a part of the experiment (five euros per person). Whatever they "invested," they were told, had a 50 percent chance of doubling and a 50 percent chance of disappearing. So each person's decision would determine how much fellow team members would receive. Moreover, the investor would get a 20 percent "investor's fee" on any profit from the decision. Best part: Each person, though deciding for others, was immune to risk—his or her own five euros wouldn't be in play. The idea was to duplicate the situation of a financial agent handling other people's money but not risking his own.

The rest of the experimental design cleverly combined a psychological question and an institutional one. Remember that some of the volunteers had been told they would be in charge, while others learned they were to be worker bees. This created two types of "investor"—those who were told they had power in the lab and those who were told they did not. Pitesa and Thau expected that the people who felt more powerful would be more reckless with other people's money.

However, the experimenters also wanted to test how this psychology of power interacts with different kinds of institutional safeguards. So before the task, they told some volunteers that they would be expected to explain to teammates how they had made their decision. Others were told they would have to focus on the good or bad results.

As you might expect, feelings of power made people more willing to take risks that might hurt others: the "bosses" were willing to gamble more of their teammates' money than were the non-bosses. But the difference between bosses and peons was not that great. Much more impressive was the effect of the two different forms of accountability. Those who expected to describe their decision-making process risked a great deal less money than those who expected to be judged on outcome. (Specifically, the "bosses" who focussed on possible results invested an average of €14.62 of other people's money, while those who instead focussed on procedure invested a mere €5.08 on average. )

The authors also got similar results in an online experiment with 63 lawyers (those who described themselves as powerful were more willing to recommend a risky investment than were those who felt less so, and those who had to account for their decision-making process were far less likely to gamble with others' fates than were those who knew they would be accountable for results).

The theoretical argument here is an attempt to move the theory of abuse of power away from a rationalist model, in which all people are expected to behave in the same way. (The conventional wisdom in the field, according to Pitesa and Thau, is that, like rational robots, we all try to get away with as much as we can, and that we are kept in check by rules that make it too costly to cheat others. They wanted to explore why some people cheat more than others in the same situation, and why some safeguards work better than others, even though the costs they impose are the same.)

You needn't be into those theoretical questions, though, to find the study rather haunting, given this week's news. Its first take-away here is that, as us non-bosses have suspected for millennia, power inclines people to do what they want, with less-than-average concern about how their decisions will affect others. And the second take-away is that if you want to inhibit this recklessness, don't focus on results. Focus on procedure. Or, to extrapolate (I think reasonably): If we judge powerful people by their results (like, oh, number of terror attacks prevented) they will behave more self-servingly more often than if you judge them by their procedures (as in, oh, is this actually constitutional?).

Illustration: 1940s-era anti-blabbing poster, from the Office for Emergency Management, Office of War Information, Domestic Operations Branch, Bureau of Special Services. Via Wikimedia

Follow me on Twitter: @davidberreby

Pitesa, M., & Thau, S. (2013). Masters of the universe: How power and accountability influence self-serving decisions under moral hazard. Journal of Applied Psychology, 98 (3), 550-558 DOI: 10.1037/a0031697

Big Think
Sponsored by Lumina Foundation

Upvote/downvote each of the videos below!

As you vote, keep in mind that we are looking for a winner with the most engaging social venture pitch - an idea you would want to invest in.

Keep reading Show less

Essential financial life skills for 21st-century Americans

Having these financial life skills can help you navigate challenging economic environments.

Photo by Jp Valery on Unsplash
Personal Growth
  • Americans are swimming in increasingly higher amounts of debt, even the upper middle class.
  • For many, this burden can be alleviated by becoming familiar with some straightforward financial concepts.
  • Here's some essential financial life skills needed to ensure your economic wellbeing.
Keep reading Show less

Scientists create a "lifelike" material that has metabolism and can self-reproduce

An innovation may lead to lifelike evolving machines.

Shogo Hamada/Cornell University
Surprising Science
  • Scientists at Cornell University devise a material with 3 key traits of life.
  • The goal for the researchers is not to create life but lifelike machines.
  • The researchers were able to program metabolism into the material's DNA.
Keep reading Show less

New fossils suggest human ancestors evolved in Europe, not Africa

Experts argue the jaws of an ancient European ape reveal a key human ancestor.

Surprising Science
  • The jaw bones of an 8-million-year-old ape were discovered at Nikiti, Greece, in the '90s.
  • Researchers speculate it could be a previously unknown species and one of humanity's earliest evolutionary ancestors.
  • These fossils may change how we view the evolution of our species.

Homo sapiens have been on earth for 200,000 years — give or take a few ten-thousand-year stretches. Much of that time is shrouded in the fog of prehistory. What we do know has been pieced together by deciphering the fossil record through the principles of evolutionary theory. Yet new discoveries contain the potential to refashion that knowledge and lead scientists to new, previously unconsidered conclusions.

A set of 8-million-year-old teeth may have done just that. Researchers recently inspected the upper and lower jaw of an ancient European ape. Their conclusions suggest that humanity's forebearers may have arisen in Europe before migrating to Africa, potentially upending a scientific consensus that has stood since Darwin's day.

Rethinking humanity's origin story

The frontispiece of Thomas Huxley's Evidence as to Man's Place in Nature (1863) sketched by natural history artist Benjamin Waterhouse Hawkins. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

As reported in New Scientist, the 8- to 9-million-year-old hominin jaw bones were found at Nikiti, northern Greece, in the '90s. Scientists originally pegged the chompers as belonging to a member of Ouranopithecus, an genus of extinct Eurasian ape.

David Begun, an anthropologist at the University of Toronto, and his team recently reexamined the jaw bones. They argue that the original identification was incorrect. Based on the fossil's hominin-like canines and premolar roots, they identify that the ape belongs to a previously unknown proto-hominin.

The researchers hypothesize that these proto-hominins were the evolutionary ancestors of another European great ape Graecopithecus, which the same team tentatively identified as an early hominin in 2017. Graecopithecus lived in south-east Europe 7.2 million years ago. If the premise is correct, these hominins would have migrated to Africa 7 million years ago, after undergoing much of their evolutionary development in Europe.

Begun points out that south-east Europe was once occupied by the ancestors of animals like the giraffe and rhino, too. "It's widely agreed that this was the found fauna of most of what we see in Africa today," he told New Scientists. "If the antelopes and giraffes could get into Africa 7 million years ago, why not the apes?"

He recently outlined this idea at a conference of the American Association of Physical Anthropologists.

It's worth noting that Begun has made similar hypotheses before. Writing for the Journal of Human Evolution in 2002, Begun and Elmar Heizmann of the Natural history Museum of Stuttgart discussed a great ape fossil found in Germany that they argued could be the ancestor (broadly speaking) of all living great apes and humans.

"Found in Germany 20 years ago, this specimen is about 16.5 million years old, some 1.5 million years older than similar species from East Africa," Begun said in a statement then. "It suggests that the great ape and human lineage first appeared in Eurasia and not Africa."

Migrating out of Africa

In the Descent of Man, Charles Darwin proposed that hominins descended out of Africa. Considering the relatively few fossils available at the time, it is a testament to Darwin's astuteness that his hypothesis remains the leading theory.

Since Darwin's time, we have unearthed many more fossils and discovered new evidence in genetics. As such, our African-origin story has undergone many updates and revisions since 1871. Today, it has splintered into two theories: the "out of Africa" theory and the "multi-regional" theory.

The out of Africa theory suggests that the cradle of all humanity was Africa. Homo sapiens evolved exclusively and recently on that continent. At some point in prehistory, our ancestors migrated from Africa to Eurasia and replaced other subspecies of the genus Homo, such as Neanderthals. This is the dominant theory among scientists, and current evidence seems to support it best — though, say that in some circles and be prepared for a late-night debate that goes well past last call.

The multi-regional theory suggests that humans evolved in parallel across various regions. According to this model, the hominins Homo erectus left Africa to settle across Eurasia and (maybe) Australia. These disparate populations eventually evolved into modern humans thanks to a helping dollop of gene flow.

Of course, there are the broad strokes of very nuanced models, and we're leaving a lot of discussion out. There is, for example, a debate as to whether African Homo erectus fossils should be considered alongside Asian ones or should be labeled as a different subspecies, Homo ergaster.

Proponents of the out-of-Africa model aren't sure whether non-African humans descended from a single migration out of Africa or at least two major waves of migration followed by a lot of interbreeding.

Did we head east or south of Eden?

Not all anthropologists agree with Begun and his team's conclusions. As noted by New Scientist, it is possible that the Nikiti ape is not related to hominins at all. It may have evolved similar features independently, developing teeth to eat similar foods or chew in a similar manner as early hominins.

Ultimately, Nikiti ape alone doesn't offer enough evidence to upend the out of Africa model, which is supported by a more robust fossil record and DNA evidence. But additional evidence may be uncovered to lend further credence to Begun's hypothesis or lead us to yet unconsidered ideas about humanity's evolution.