It’s a familiar story: A corrupt leader rises to power, is often willingly allowed to do so, and proceeds to leave a trail of destruction in his wake (it’s usually, but not always, a male). We see this time and time again throughout history and across the globe. But we never seem to learn. How can we account for this?
The conventional answer is to blame power itself, as in the proverbial saying “power corrupts; absolute power corrupts absolutely.” But as political scientist Brian Klaas explains in his latest book, Corruptible: Who Gets Power and How It Changes Us, things are not so simple. While power can indeed corrupt, more often bad people are drawn to positions of power in the first place, and pursue these positions within systems that actually encourage bad behavior. To ensure that the right people are placed in power, we have to do more than focus only on individuals; we need to fix the underlying systems that allow them to thrive. As Klaas wrote:
“What if power doesn’t make us better or worse? What if power just attracts certain kinds of people—and those are precisely the ones who shouldn’t be in charge? Maybe those who most want power are the least suited to hold it. Perhaps those who crave power are corruptible.”
The conventional (but probably oversimplified) idea that power corrupts is best exemplified in the infamous Stanford Prison Experiment conducted in 1971. In this experiment, volunteers were placed inside of a simulated prison environment. One group of volunteers was assigned to become prisoners while the other group was assigned as guards. What the researchers discovered was that those assigned as guards, once given power, began to mistreat the prisoners, so much so that the experiment was stopped before its planned two-week duration.
This seems to show that power does in fact corrupt, and that this could happen to anyone. But as Klaas points out, the interpretation of this experiment is not as straightforward as you might think.
First, not all the guards became abusive, so if power does corrupt, it clearly affects people differently. Second, the volunteers may have been attempting to act out their roles in a certain way, thinking that’s what the researchers were looking for. In fact, the latest research into this experiment calls into question whether or not the volunteers were actually coached to act aggressively.
And finally, and most crucially, new research has revealed that the way you advertise the study impacts the type of people who volunteer. If you advertise for volunteers for “a psychological study,” you get a far different response than if you advertise for “a psychological study of prison life.” Just by adding the phrase “of prison life” to the advertisement, researchers found that more aggressive, authoritarian, and narcissistic personality types applied for the study (after conducting personality tests). As Klaas notes, ordinary people are not turned sadistic when given power; rather, sadistic individuals actively seek out positions of power.
If this is true, this is a crucial discovery. It means that bad people will always seek out positions of power, and that the only way to stop them from attaining it is to fix the systems that allow them to thrive—and to get people to stop voting for them.
Unfortunately, that last point is easier said than done. It seems that we are evolutionarily predisposed to vote for bad leaders. As Klaas explains, in our hunter-gatherer past, it made sense to select leaders based almost exclusively on physical traits. After all, you would never select the weakest member of your tribe to lead the next hunting expedition or war. In our hunter-gatherer past, then, perception mostly matched reality: the most physically gifted and aggressive individual was the one most likely to achieve the tribe’s survival goals.
But, as is mainly the case, in the modern world, basing decisions strictly on our evolutionary psychology is mostly idiotic. Hunter-gatherers may have been justified in eating as many calories of sugar as they could find, for example, but if we follow this instinct in the modern world, we will almost assuredly die (from obesity-related illnesses like heart disease and diabetes). This is an example of what is called an evolutionary mismatch.
Likewise, there is absolutely no correlation between the ability to lead a modern, knowledge-based economy and how much one can bench press, but the way we vote in modern elections, we might as well replace the debates with weight lifting competitions.
We consistently vote for tall white men with masculine faces and physically fit bodies and overconfident, aggressive personalities. We especially seem to like overconfidence and aggression, but the problem with this is that, overwhelmingly, these are the precise personality traits one will find in psychopaths or narcissists. The disturbing conclusion is that, barring further considerations regarding the individual’s actual qualifications, intelligence, and moral character, our instincts tell us to vote or promote psychopaths—who are themselves more likely to pursue power in the first place.
Research bears this out. In addition to political positions, psychopaths disproportionately fill corporate boardrooms and executive offices. As Klaas wrote:
“When psychopathy is sampled in society as a whole, about one in every five hundred people scores above the psychopath threshold of thirty [on a psychological test measuring psychopathy]. In the study of aspiring corporate managers, it was one in every twenty-five. Those results could be an outlier, but that study suggests that there are about twenty times more psychopaths in corporate leadership than in the general population.”
Power is not corrupting the majority of individuals; bad leaders are seeking these positions of power out as the most efficient means of controlling other people and satisfying their selfish desires.
Let’s recap the depressing situation so far: Psychopaths naturally seek out power and often get it because they have the traits that make us subconsciously want to vote for or promote them. Once they get in power, they cause massive levels of harm because the qualities that get them elected or promoted (overconfidence, aggression, ambition, greed) are the same qualities we often find in those with low levels of competence, intelligence, and moral character. On the flip side, if you’re a good, decent person with intelligence and humility, in all likelihood, you avoid positions of power altogether (with rare exceptions; think Marcus Aurelius or George Washington).
So then why do we think power corrupts, if the evidence points to the opposite conclusion? According to Klaas, four cognitive biases explain why most people think power corrupts when it doesn’t.
First, leaders placed in bad situations often have to choose between equally bad options. It’s not that leaders are always inherently corrupt, but that they have to make tough choices most of us will never have to face (like allowing a small number to die to save far more people in a war or triage situation). Second, leaders that are already bad seem to become worse, but that’s only because they are learning better strategies and tactics. The final two reasons are that bad leaders may not necessarily be worse than the average person, it’s just that they have more opportunities to commit wrongful acts and are under more scrutiny and therefore are more likely to get caught.
So while power may corrupt in some instances (Klaas covers this extensively, evening examining the physiological changes to the body from power and stress), this phenomenon is overstated; by far the greater problem is that already corrupt people seek power and we willingly give it to them. And if that’s the case, the next question is, What can be done? Klaas has some suggestions.
Klaas starts by explaining that there is no simple fix; we can’t prevent every corrupt leader from getting elected or being promoted. But by instituting a series of reforms in how we recruit, vote, and monitor leaders, we can lessen the chance that bad people achieve positions of power while limiting the harm they can do while in office—all while encouraging the best among us to pursue these positions instead.
Klaas outlines several options including better recruiting and vetting practices, randomly selecting individuals to perform oversight (sortition), rotating people through departments to prevent fraud, personalizing decisions by having leaders meet face-to-face with the people their decisions will impact, and more thorough, randomized monitoring, not of lower-level employees, but of those in positions of power.
But perhaps the greatest deterrent to bad leadership is knowledge. If we can recognize our own tendencies to vote for or promote the wrong people based on superficial assessments made with our Stone Age brains, we can consciously try to do better. We can pay more attention to someone’s actual qualifications than to their superficial charm; we can recognize that overconfidence and aggression are often red flags; and we can fix our systems so that good behavior is rewarded, and that the morally upright among us seek out positions of power instead.
The key message of this book is that bad people naturally seek out positions of power, so one of the best ways to prevent this from happening is to learn how to identify sociopathic tendencies in others (and hopefully not in yourself). To that end, check out the following books:
- The Sociopath Next Door
- Snakes in Suits: When Psychopaths Go to Work
- The Psychopath Whisperer: The Science of Those Without Conscience
One of the most intriguing strategies for preventing bad leadership covered in the book is the idea of sortition—randomly selecting individuals for political office (or for oversight). Check out the following two books on how sortition might work: