Leaders who feel undeserving may be less selfish

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Whether or not high-ranking people feel worthy of their prominent social position has a lot to do with their level of selfishness, research suggests.

A series of six scientific studies shows that people with high social status who don’t believe they’ve earned that status are much more generous than high-status people who feel they’re owed the respect and admiration of others.

Prominent people who don’t feel their status is fair and equitable may be more generous as a way to alleviate their sense of inequity, says Nicholas Hays, assistant professor of management at Michigan State University.

“The effects of social status on generosity are contingent on deservingness, meaning that high-ranking people don’t always behave selfishly, as a significant amount of research suggests, but do indeed care about whether or not they deserve their position.”

What gives? Scientists try to predict generosity

In separate studies with more than 1,200 total participants, Hays and Steven Blader, professor at New York University, examined the effects of social status on generosity. In one of the studies, for example, they surveyed 255 MBA students organized into 51 teams twice during a six-month project on the students’ willingness to help their teammates and on their perceptions of their own and their teammates’ social status.

The research project is one of the first of its kind. Previous studies have looked at the effects of power—which is defined as control over resources, whereas status is about being respected by others—and found that powerful people tend to become more selfish regardless of fairness or equity.

But Hays and Blader, in all six studies, found that while high-status people who feel worthy of their rank are indeed less generous, high-status people who feel unworthy are actually more generous.

Prior research has also found that generosity often leads to high social status. The current study, published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, takes that a step further by considering what happens after people have attained high status.

“We demonstrate that generosity may not persist once people achieve that high status,” Hays said. “It depends on whether they feel that status is deserved.”

Source: Michigan State University