Power as an Emotional Liability: Implications for Perceived Authenticity and Trust After a Transgression

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Abstract

People may express a variety of emotions after committing a transgression. Through 6 empirical studies and a meta-analysis, we investigate how the perceived authenticity of such emotional displays and resulting levels of trust are shaped by the transgressor’s power. Past findings suggest that individuals with power tend to be more authentic because they have more freedom to act on the basis of their own personal inclinations. Yet, our findings reveal that (a) a transgressor’s display of emotion is perceived to be less authentic when that party’s power is high rather than low; (b) this perception of emotional authenticity, in turn, directly influences (and mediates) the level of trust in that party; and (c) perceivers ultimately exert less effort when asked to make a case for leniency toward high rather than low-power transgressors. This tendency to discount the emotional authenticity of the powerful was found to arise from power increasing the transgressor’s perceived level of emotional control and strategic motivation, rather than a host of alternative mechanisms. These results were also found across different types of emotions (sadness, anger, fear, happiness, and neutral), expressive modalities, operationalizations of the transgression, and participant populations. Altogether, our findings demonstrate that besides the wealth of benefits power can afford, it also comes with a notable downside. The findings, furthermore, extend past research on perceived emotional authenticity, which has focused on how and when specific emotions are expressed, by revealing how this perception can depend on considerations that have nothing to do with the expression itself.

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