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Differentiating the Effects of Power and Status on Unethical Behavior: A Moderated Mediation Meta-Analysis

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Power and status are two critical elements of social hierarchy. However, whether power and status have similar effects on unethical behavior has received inconsistent results. We constructed a theoretical model of power, status, and unethical behavior to address this issue by integrating the approach-inhibition theory and expectation states theory. We verified this model based on 132 samples reported in 95 articles. Our meta-analytic results show that power and status affect unethical behavior differently, such that power is positively related to unethical behavior. Contrastingly, status is negatively associated with unethical behavior. Furthermore, power and status have different indirect effects on unethical behavior through moral cognition. Compared with power, status has a stronger indirect inhibitory effect on unethical behavior through moral cognition. We also examined the moderating role of power distance in the indirect effects of power and status on unethical behavior. The results of the moderated mediation meta-analysis show that the indirect positive effect of power on unethical behavior through moral cognition and the indirect negative effect of status on unethical behavior through moral cognition are stronger when power distance is higher. These findings help scholars better understand how power and status may increase or inhibit unethical behavior and when this occurs. Furthermore, these findings provide more convincing and referential evidence for practitioners.

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Data Availability

The data and code that support the findings of this study are available on the Open Science Framework (OSF) at


  1. While some scholars have argued that the dimensions of hierarchy also include competence, leadership, dominance, influence, and prestige (Blader & Chen, 2014; Stamkou et al., 2020), actually they are mostly antecedents and consequences of hierarchy. Specifically, people can demonstrate their value by possessing competence (e.g., task skills) and leadership (e.g., interpersonal skills), convincing others that the individual contributes to achieving collective task goals, leading to a higher hierarchy (Anderson & Brion, 2014; Mumford et al., 2007; Sweetman et al., 2013). In addition, people can demonstrate dominance by inducing fear to attain a higher hierarchy (Henrich & Gil-White, 2001). Influence is regarded as a consequence of hierarchy. Individuals with a high position in a hierarchy process more resources and opportunities and can influence others more (Magee & Galinsky, 2008). Prestige is the most closely tied to status, and we agree with some researchers who have explicitly described the two constructs as equivalent (Cheng et al., 2013). Therefore, our study primarily used power and status as the fundamental dimensions of hierarchy.


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This study was funded by the National Natural Science Foundation of China (grant number 71972093; 72372063), the Fundamental Research Funds for the Central Universities (2023jbkyzx005), and the 2023 MOE of PRC Industry–University Collaborative Education Program (Kingfar–CES “Human Factors and Ergonomics” Program).

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Appendix 1

Table 5

Table 5 Overview of studies’ characteristics included in the meta-analysis

Appendix 2

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Zhang, C., Wei, X. Differentiating the Effects of Power and Status on Unethical Behavior: A Moderated Mediation Meta-Analysis. J Bus Psychol 39, 871–896 (2024).

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