Dan Ariely points to another great piece of research (full paper PDF linked on his blog). He describes a study that provides more evidence that our ethics are much more malleable than we think. Basically, this research finds that when you are in a position of power, your ethical expectations of yourself get easier and your ethical expectations of others get stricter. It further found that when your power came illegitimately, the opposite happens.
This illustrates what is commonly referred to as a licensing effect. It is the same as when you order a healthy meal at a restaurant and then reward yourself with a big dessert or side dish. Our logical/rational brains may want to do what is right, but our emotional brains feel entitled to maintain a balance. So if your power is legitimate, you are entitled to more unethical deviations than others are as a "balance." But if your power is illegitimate, you are entitled to even less unethical behavior than others - also to "balance" the power.
What I find very interesting is that the researchers were able to induce the effect just by getting their participants to imagine stories and situations where they had legitimate or illegitimate power. It doesn't take much to get these effects going. This reminds me of the study I blogged about recently where even imagining that you order a healthy meal gives you license to order dessert. I guess it is pretty easy to fool ourselves into doing what our emotional brains wanted all along. Face it - we are suckers.