People In Positions Of Power Are More Likely To Blame And Punish Others For Poor Performance

By Emily Reynolds

Having a “choice mindset” — believing, in short, that people’s behaviours are “choices”, or deliberate actions driven by their own motives and preferences — has multiple benefits. Those with a choice mindset feel as if they have control over their own destiny, for example, and see better outcomes in negotiations.

There are some drawbacks, however. Choice mindsets can lead to victim blaming, a lack of care about inequality, and a reduced interest in acts of social good. A new study in Social Psychological and Personality Science takes a closer look at these more troublesome impacts. Yidan Yin from UC San Diego and colleagues find that people in positions of power tend to adopt a choice mindset, which makes them more likely to blame others for mistakes.

In the first study, 363 participants completed two surveys in a random order. One measured participants’ sense of power, asking how much they agreed with statements such as “I can get others to do what I want”. The other looked at their tendency to apportion blame. Participants were told that the researchers were crowdsourcing a solution to a real issue in their department: whether or not to give a bonus to an administrative assistant who had failed to meet a deadline for a grant, and claimed she had no choice because she was “caught up in other work”. They were then asked how much choice the assistant had in not completing the work, and whether or not they believed she was to blame for missing the deadline. Finally, they were asked to vote on whether or not she should receive the bonus.

The team found that participants with a higher sense of power believed the assistant had more choice, and were less likely to vote to give her a bonus. Similarly, those who perceived the assistant to have more choice blamed her more. This remained the case even when excluding participants who did not believe the scenario was real.

In the second study, the team looked at what happened when people were made to feel more or less powerful. Participants were told they had been placed into teams to rank in order of importance a list of tips about how to succeed on Mechanical Turk (the crowdsourcing website  where the study took place). In the low power condition, participants were told they had been assigned the role of a “worker” who was inferior to other teammates, while in the high power condition they were a supervisor.

Participants were then asked to summarise a transcription another team had supposedly made: the transcription was full of errors, which they were told was because the worker’s internet connection was unstable. They then answered questions about the transcription, indicating whether they believed the transcriber had a choice about correcting their errors, how much they were to blame, and whether they should receive payment for the transcription.

Again, participants in the high power group were both more likely to perceive the transcriber as having a choice than those in the low power group, which in turn made them more likely to blame and punish the transcriber by indicating they should not be paid. A third study also replicated these findings.

In all three studies, participants who felt more powerful were also more likely to see others as having more choice and, therefore, to blame them more when something went wrong — even if a reasonable explanation was given. As the team notes, this can’t just be because those in positions of power want to preserve their own position: in the first study, participants were asked to make a decision about someone completely unrelated to them and their own place in a social hierarchy. Instead, it may be that powerful people benefit psychologically from believing everyone’s position is related to choice, meaning they had reached their own position through merit and hard work.

Those in serious positions of power, such as policymakers and politicians, should therefore carefully consider how much choice people actually have in different situations. Are people “choosing” to remain on benefits, to use one issue highlighted by the team, or are they simply dealing with the constraints of their life and the world as best they can? If powerful people think more critically about when we really do have choice and when we don’t, it could avoid them unfairly blaming or punishing others.

Power Increases Perceptions of Others’ Choices, Leading People to Blame Others More

Emily Reynolds is a staff writer at BPS Research Digest