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08 April 2010

What possessed Heatley, Hide & English?


A chastened Phil Heatley has returned to Cabinet, determined to ensure his future spending on expenses is in line with parliamentary and cabinet rules.

His supporters said his offences were ‘technical' and ‘minor', but Heatley clearly understood that the sums involved were not the issue. It was the intent. Quite clearly, he had ignored the rules when putting the costs of a family holiday on the taxpayer's tab. In describing bottles of wine bought at the National Party conference as 'Minister and Spouse: dinner', he was untruthful.

By way of contrast, when one-time perk buster Rodney Hide splurged on a holiday in London with his girl friend, the sums involved were a degree of magnitude greater, but they were legal. Hide was within the cabinet rules, but he was hog troughing on a grand scale and was foolish enough to defend this behaviour.

Then there was Bill English and the perceived abuse of his housing allowances. Instead of fessing up immediately, he dug in, thereby prompting the media to go into pack attack mode. How could he have been so foolish?.

Heatley was revealed as dishonest. Hide was revealed as a hypocrite. Bill English was seen to have an overweening sense of entitlement. All have suffered politically for their misdemeanours.

Given that none of these men are newcomers to politics, why did they do it? Where were their political antennae?

According to research reported in The Economist, 23 January 2010, the reason may lie in the sense of entitlement that develops in many people put in positions of power. The research, originally reported in Psychological Science, appears to prove Lord Acton's dictim that all power tends to corrupt, rather than merely attracting the corruptible.

The results suggest that power promotes a hypocritical tendency to hold other people to a higher standard than oneself. On a nine point morality scale (with 1 being highly immoral and 9 being highly moral), high power individuals felt that if others broke tax laws this rated 6.6, whereas they rated themselves 7.6. When it came to stealing a bicycle they had a real need for, the rankings were 5.1 and 6.9 respectively. For speeding when late for an appointment, 6.3 and 7.6.

In contrast, low power people saw everyone as equal. On speeding, they scored 7.2 vs 7.3. In the other tests they were actually harder on themselves than others: speeding 7.7 vs 6.8 and for stealing a bike 5.1 vs 4.3.

An intriguing element of the research was the behaviour of people in high-powered states who felt they did not deserve their elevated positions. They gave others a lenient 6.0 when stealing a bike but assigned themselves a highly immoral 3.9 if they did it themselves.

This reversal, called  ‘hypercrisy' by the researchers, may be a signal of submissiveness - one employed by other animal species who find themselves in the wrong place in the heirachy and want to escape punishment by the real dominants.

In contrast, those who abuse the power status they enjoy, do so because at some intuitive level they feel entitled to take what they want.  If the researchers are right, the sense which some powerful people seem to have that different rules apply to them is not just a convenient smokescreen. They genuinely believe it.

This sense of entitlement is crucial to understanding why the Rodney Hides and Bill English's of this world behave the way they do. As for Phil Heatley's unexpected but morally justified resignation, maybe we were seeing hypercrisy at work.


Source: The Economist, reporting on a study by Dr Joris Lammers, Tilburg University, The Netherlands and Adam Galinsky, North Western University, Illinois

- Trevor Walton

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