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OPINION: The science of how power corrupts

Saturday 30 July 2022 | Written by Petero Okotai | Published in Editorials, Opinion


OPINION: The science of how power corrupts
Column writer Petero Okotai. Photo: SUPPLIED

"This column is part of a few which I have entitled " Oversimplifications". The reason for this is that almost every subject, and indeed everything that I write, almost always merits something significantly longer, if not a book, to explain the complexity and nuances, analyse the pros, cons, and counter arguments... most of which I have considered, having dwelled on many of these issues for years. However, if I did include all of these thoughts, 1) I'd never finish any of these and; 2) there's not enough room in the paper. So remember, below is an oversimplification of a slightly more complex ideas and thoughts."

What the result of these elections (whatever happens) will be that there will be a group of winners and then there will be losers, and (as the saying goes) “to the winner goes the spoils” (which is an interesting choice of words considering what is about to be discussed). The “Spoils” in this instance is the “power” to control government, and influence the future of the country. I have spent… well far too long working in and around the government and have had tantamount to a front row seat to how “power” has affected in individuals, both at the political level and in the public service.

Our country is so small that most of us know someone who got in to a position of some power and had a shift in their personality, usually not for the better. I first saw this when I started working for government many moons ago and got in to the room with a someone that I knew from their previous profession where they were pretty easy going and seemed like and intelligent, good person who didn’t take themselves too seriously. However, they had recently come in to a position of some “power” and this was my first meeting with him. I was shocked how his demeanor was completely different, and felt inclined to talk down to the me and my colleagues. More shocking was the misinformed crap that was coming out his mouth, as it seemed he felt compelled to have definitive and simplistic answers to the problems of the country. I thought to myself “what the hell happened to this guy?” It was only years later I would get a scientific explanation which clarified this situation, and many others I have seen.

A Neuroscientist at McMaster University (Ontario, Canada) found when he put the heads of the powerful and the not-so-powerful under a transcranial-magnetic-stimulation machine, he found that power, in fact, impairs a specific neural process, “mirroring,” that may be a cornerstone of empathy. These scans showed that the parts of the brain which respond to rules and also morality seemed to light up less and sometimes not at all with those persons “under the influence of power” (those who were very wealthy or had become powerful in other ways like politicians and church pastors) compared to those that were not.

This correlated with research out of UC Berkeley where they found in after years experiments and studies spanning two decades, that people in positions of power acted as if they had suffered a traumatic brain injury—becoming more impulsive, less risk-aware, and, crucially, less adept at seeing things from other people’s point of view. Hence, when the Atlantic wrote an article on this research in late 2017, they titled it, “Power Causes Brain Damage!”

This was revelatory to me as this scientific research explained so much of what I had seen throughout my career and answered how people could change so quickly. It wasn’t so much that people were intrinsically bad people who were hiding their agenda, it was simply that power changed the way their brain worked (or didn’t).

Now, obviously this doesn’t happen every time as there are some antidotes to stop being completely corrupted by power. One is having “moral reminders,” that is meaningful symbols and messages around that keep the person is question grounded…  I use the term “meaningful” as I see a number of codes of conducts and things of that nature that in theory fit the bill, except they pay no heed to them and are an example of “isomorphic mimicry” – basically faking it… but that is an article for another time.

Another thing that people can do is to surround themselves with people whom they will know will “keep them honest” and grounded and whom they will respond to (easier said than done as most people I’ve found tend to tune out poor news or criticism when there are plenty of sycophants around to tell them what they want to hear a suck at the teat of power). This is also difficult considering the “power paradox” where in the same study it was found those effected by power were less receptive or perceptive of the views and emotions of others (akin to sociopathic behaviour).

The third measure one can do is to set up mechanisms that will act as check and balance on their behavior, which is what President Obama did when he set up the Office of Government Ethics (which of course Trump scrapped).

All of this means that those who are lucky enough to win the election and be in position of influence and power will be subject to the temptations of power. I have warned a couple of budding candidates who’ve spoken to me about their aspirations, about this scientific fact. I have asked them to do the following: “write down what it is that you are not willing do to be in power”. What I am asking them to do is to draw their line before they even start “campaigning” because it is likely their answer will shift relative to their proximity to power.

Another thing with power is that it has the ability to corrupt instantly or more insidiously overtime. In Harvard Business school’s research of CEOs they have called this “the complacency trap,” where after a time (on average 4 and half years) CEOs seem to become complacent and identifying the company as their own, with a higher chance of unethical behavior starting to creep as they perceive the organization as a vessel to further their own goals and ambitions (usually wealth and power through the mis use of the organization’s resources).

This is the driving rationale behind term limits placed in positions of power like president of the US and other similar positions. Whilst research on the efficacy of term limits is divided, it is telling that leaders of countries like Guinea (n Africa) , China and in particular, Russia, have all abolished their term limits.  Long tenured leaders and government (over 8 years) generally tend to be bad for democracy and “the complacency trap” leads to a lack scrutiny and fertile ground for fraud and corruption.

There is a bit of a paradox here, where people often will strive to get into politics to “change things for the better” and feel like they would “never do these things un ethical ”. The science shows that you’re at going to be tempted and being in a position of power will make you more prone to change your position on these things. Those who are the least successful in curbing their own tendency to corruption are those that are the most confident in their self-righteousness. Being an avid church goer does not inoculate you from the effects of power, in fact as we’ve seen with the sexual abuse scandal in the catholic church or the blatant exploitation of parishioners by many tele-evangelic pastors, the effects of power are as prevalent in organized religion as they are in politics, and considering what the research, this is not surprising.  

Being good and acting morally takes work, and active reflection. And as much as governance is about doing things, even more so I believe at least, it is about how you govern. The means do not justify the ends, and “results driven” governing and management can lead to perverse incentives, where projects are rushed, mistakes are swept under the carpet (only to repeated in a few years) and become breeding grounds for sycophants and sociopaths.

 I argue that the means are the ends when comes come governance and leadership, and that doing things the right way has to be as paramount a consideration in the day to day for any politician or senior public servant (or business person for that matter) as the public services they’re responsible for. (Side Note: politicians tend to forget they’re also “public servants”, i.e. they are there to serve the people).  The wide and crooked path is always open and tends to be much easier than the straight and narrow, but taking the easy route tends to lead to the demise of the organization and the individual in the end. For those who are elected to power on Monday, I wondering if they are willing to do the work, for those who have been in power, can they even recognize the effects of power on them, or are they too far gone? I don’t have scanner (nor the medical background) to put all these politicians’ brains under examination, but I suggest that this has to be an important consideration for us all when voting.