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   2012, Vol. 44 Issue (7) : 964-971     DOI:
The Effects of Authoritarian Personality and Power on Moral Thinking
LI Xiao-Ping;YANG Sheng-Yu; LI Meng-Yao
(1 School of Psychology, Nanjing Normal University, Nanjing 210097, China)
(2 Department of Psychology, Bard College, Annandale-on-Hudson 12504, USA)
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Abstract  In situations of moral dilemma – for example, when urban management officers meet street vendors – people have to decide what is fair and to choose between at least two conflicting options. They have to decide whether to apply rules or not, and their decisions may have different consequences for the people affected. Applying and not applying rules are two opposite types of moral thinking to resolve the dilemma. The former is rule-based moral thinking, and the latter is outcome-based moral thinking. In rule-based moral thinking, an act is inherently right or wrong, irrespective of specifics of the circumstances. In outcome-based moral thinking, the rightness of an act is not determined by the degree to which it fits with principles, but by looking at the consequences of that act. Previous research has shown that people with high power are more likely to use rule-based moral thinking styles, whereas low-power individuals are more likely to rely on outcome-based moral thinking. Another concept that is potentially related to power is authoritarian personality. The hypothesis of the current research is that the effects of power priming on moral thinking style are moderated by authoritarian personality type. More specifically, we expected that when primed with high power, only individuals with high-authoritarian personality would show rule-based moral thinking.
To test our hypothesis, 122 public servants from the Chinese Public Security System were recruited to participate in the present study. Participants were first divided into two groups of high and low authoritarians based on their scores on an authoritarian personality scale. They were then randomly assigned to conditions in which they were primed with either high or low power. After the power priming procedure, participants read about a classic trolley problem and indicated how they would deal with the moral dilemma. Their choices reflected either rule-based or outcome-based moral thinking style.
The results showed that compared to low-authoritarian participants, high-authoritarian participants were more likely to adopt rule-based moral thinking style. Moreover, high-authoritarian participants, after being primed with high power, exhibited more rule-based moral thinking. However, such effects were not found in those who scored low on the authoritarian personality scale. Therefore, power only affected high-authoritarian participants on moral thinking, but not low authoritarians.
The present work allows us to better understand intergroup conflicts resulting from different moral thinking styles. According to previous research, public servants in the Public Security System tended to possess authoritarian personality. Current findings suggest that in the face of moral dilemmas, high-power public servants are probably more inclined to adopt rule-based moral thinking style than the relatively powerless general public. Therefore, when confronting with each other, high-power parties with authoritarian personality may appear rigid and unbending toward low-power parties. In the meantime, low-power parties may appear irresponsible, focusing on immediate outcomes rather than higher legal and social norms, especially in the eyes of the powerful. Furthermore, if rule-based and outcome-based moral principles lead to different decisions, conflicts between low- and high-power parties may arise as a result. Better conflict resolution strategies should therefore aim at satisfying both parties by incorporating both outcome- and rule-based elements.
Keywords authoritarian personality      power      moral thinking      rule-based      outcome-based      social conflict     
Corresponding Authors: LI Xiao-Ping   
Issue Date: 28 July 2012
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LI Xiao-Ping
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LI Xiao-Ping,YANG Sheng-Yu,LI Meng-Yao. The Effects of Authoritarian Personality and Power on Moral Thinking[J]. , 2012, 44(7): 964-971.
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