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New research shows how the public passes judgment on high-profile people

5/7/2009

Power corrupts. And absolute power corrupts absolutely. Is it true? When you consider the continuous stream of high-status wrongdoers covered in the media, it may be that what’s really being corrupted is our view of the guilty party.

Recent research from two UNC Kenan-Flagler professors found that the public views misdeeds by people in powerful positions as more willful – as though the person in question should know better. As a result, the public is less forgiving of their misdeeds than it would be of someone of lesser status. Alison Fragale, a Mary Farley Ames Lee Fellow and assistant professor of organizational behavior and Ben Rosen, the Hanes Professor of Management, are the authors of the research.

A powerful lesson for power players can be drawn from this research: banking your selflessness as you come up the ranks will serve you well when you reach the top. In a scandal-plagued world, high-status people are targets for the media and the justice system alike. Selfless acts affect people’s perceptions in a positive way that softens the blow in the event of a crisis

Cases in point Two examples from the research show that when wrongdoing is involved, the public tends to judge people of high social status more harshly than people of low social status.

In an unpublished study, subjects were told that a pharmaceutical company had released a new drug that caused the deaths of several patients. In the first scenario, subjects were told that the drug trial had been designed by a junior scientist. When the junior scientist’s work was in question, subjects attributed the result to a simple, and therefore innocent, mistake. In the other scenario, subjects were told that a senior scientist had designed the trial. These subjects attributed patient deaths to the deliberate design of a bad drug trial.

In another study, subjects were presented with two people who had been caught by the IRS for underpaying their income taxes. One was “Elizabeth McAllister Wallace,” described as a woman with prominent social and political connections. The other was “Yolanda Ramirez,” the daughter of Mexican immigrants. Who got the harsher penalty? Mrs. Wallace. Subjects felt she had intentionally broken the law whereas Ms. Ramirez had merely made a mistake.

Judge Not… Why does this happen? Why are we more inclined to punish people of high social status more harshly than people of low social status? It appears that observers make inferences about what kind of person the wrongdoer is and why he or she acted that way.

Our legal system is designed around the principle that the punishment should fit the crime – regardless of the criminal’s social stature. But apparently, most of us don’t see it that way. The punishment we mete out is not just based on characteristics of the crime, but also characteristics of the criminal. The research shows that we punish people also for who they are, not just what they’ve done.

Stereotyping and Schadenfreude One possible reason why people factor in social status is stereotyping. Powerful people are seen as having greater resources at their disposal. They may be better educated. They may be able to purchase support and advice from others. So the thinking goes, if they engaged in misdeeds they probably did so because they were selfish and out for self-gain.

Recently impeached Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich is a prime example. While certainly not the first – or probably the last – public official to deal in pay-to-play politics, he was treated harshly by the media, the public, and ultimately by the Illinois state legislature. His taped conversations and his reputation as a do-whatever-it-takes-to-win politician, encouraged criticism from all corners.

Another baser but just as compelling reason may be schadenfreude, the taking of pleasure in the misfortune of others. This is a basic way to protect self-esteem. When someone falls from grace, our self-esteem is boosted. We can say, “That person wasn’t really better than me after all.”

The higher the status of the wrongdoer, the greater the fall from grace and, accordingly, the larger the boost to our self-esteem. So we have a built-in psychological incentive to punish high-status people more harshly in order to make ourselves feel better about who we are.

One high-status person who received her comeuppance was Martha Stewart. Convicted and jailed for insider training, she was gleefully vilified by the public, probably more for her past reputation than for her present misdeeds. Some in the legal profession – and Martha herself – decried that her particular type of insider shenanigans went on all the time and rarely, if ever, resulted in jail time for the perpetrator. But since Stewart made a lot of women, both working and non-working, feel inept with their domestic skills, many of them could feel vindicated that she really wasn’t the perfect woman after all.

Reputation Redemption Understanding the public’s desire to judge high-profile, high-status people harshly can help develop a way of dealing with falls from grace more effectively. The key seems to be the public’s perception of the wrongdoer’s self-interest. The research suggests that reputations can be redeemed if the party in question can counter an image of selfishness.

Of course, the best offense is a good defense, so it makes sense for high-profile people to burnish their images before they need to use them. A reputation for kindness can be created by making visible contributions of time and money, or otherwise demonstrating concern for others.

Think of someone like Oprah. Known for her generosity, she has in many ways insulated herself from potential problems. When she was being sued by the meat industry, people were very much on her side. And when a small scandal broke more recently about possible mistreatment of children at the school she created in Africa, none of the negative attention was focused on her.

But if the damage has already been done, and the high-status person hasn’t exactly cultivated a Mother Teresa-like reputation along the way, the best way to get redemption is to get a reference. Endorsements from trusted third parties can also improve reputation.

This is borne out in another unpublished study in which subjects were asked about the relative culpability of former New York Gov. Elliot Spitzer, who resigned from his position after it was discovered that he hired prostitutes on a regular basis. Subjects were given Spitzer’s public apology with a picture of his wife standing with him — the way the scene unfolded in real life — while a second group was given the same text but with a picture of Oprah Winfrey standing by his side. The “Oprah” group responded to Spitzer more favorably suggesting that there may be a so-called “Halo Effect” when it comes to managing one’s reputation and mitigating public disdain.

It would seem that a powerful lesson for power players can be drawn from this research: banking your selflessness as you come up the ranks will serve you well when you reach the top. In a scandal-plagued world, high-status people are targets for the media and the justice system alike. Selfless acts affect people’s perceptions in a positive way that softens the blow in the event of a crisis.