Research Shows Elite Get More Scrutiny Than Others During Scandals
October 18, 2013 – People of elite status are held to higher standards and more closely scrutinized than non-elites are for the same behavior, according to a study coauthored by Dennis Quinn, a professor at Georgetown’s McDonough School of Business.
The study was recently published in Administrative Science Quarterly.
“Several of my coauthors and I were interested in studying effects of political scandals,” Quinn says. “Were various types of political leaders more or less likely to cheat the public? How did voters react to the scandals? The British MP [members of parliament] expenses scandal was a natural experiment where secret expense claims were unexpectedly released to the public. The scandal was a natural laboratory to examine our questions.”
The researchers studied the effect of the 2009 scandal, in which The Daily Telegraph released confidential expense claims from the MPs. The claims reported expenses from the members’ Additional Costs Allowances (ACA), which legally grants them reimbursement for expenses when traveling and second-home costs.
But when the claims of the 2004-2009 ACA became public, it turned out that some of them included reimbursement requests for such items as sacks of horse manure, nanny services, “moat-cleaning” and telephone calls.
After nearly 90 percent of British citizens expressed discontent with the MPs, nearly one-third of sitting MPs left Parliament through resignation, retirement or electoral default.
Elite: Tread Carefully
In the study, “Falls from Grace and the Hazards of High Status: The 2009 British MP Expense Scandal and Its Impact on Parliamentary Elites,” Quinn and his co-authors found that people of high status are more likely to become the target of media and receive more negative press coverage.
“The study suggests that higher status individuals and organization are scrutinized more carefully than the rest of us, and that their transgressions are more salient to both the media and the general public,” Quinn says, “In other words, tread carefully if you are a leader of an organization.”
Quinn’s coauthors on the study are Scott D. Graffin and Jonathan Bundy of the University of Georgia, Joseph F. Porac of New York University and James B. Wade of Emory University.
Public Rebuke, Shame
The researchers investigated the roles of elite opportunism, such as elites over-exploiting their advantage through self-interested activities, elite targeting and press coverage in determining the career outcomes of the MPs.
By looking at the MPs pre-parliamentary status, examining five years of ACA expense behavior, pre-scandal press coverage and coverage for a year after the scandal, the team studied the impact of each component on the likelihood of the MP’s survival through the next election.
Despite elite MPs being no more likely to abuse the expense system than non-elites, elite MPs still experienced more scandal press coverage and were held more accountable for their ACA expense behavior. These increased attentions correlated to the likelihood of these MPs’ exit from parliament – confirming that elite targeting and press coverage were the ultimate influencers.
“I was surprised at the extent to which we found that the UK media, especially print media, singled-out socially and politically prominent MPs for public rebuke and shame,” Quinn says. “I expected more balance in the reporting.”
Power of Media
Elite MPs with honors and awards were punished even more severely for their misappropriation of ACA funds, received more scandal press coverage and were more than three times as likely to exit Parliament when expenses were considered egregious.
A similar trend holds true within the United States, as 28 percent of superstar CEOs who won five or more awards eventually became fallen CEOs.
Quinn says the findings of the study illustrate the power of the media to influence careers and perceptions of elites – as the dynamics of scandals are heavily shaped by how the media targets and construes elites’ transgressions.
“We found that the media strongly shaped the final political outcomes - high status MPs were subject to high levels of media scrutiny, which translated into public backlash against these individuals,” Quinn says. “Overwhelmingly, those targeted declined to seek re-election in the subsequent Parliament. Their elected careers have come to at least a temporary end.”