What you will learn from reading Corruptible:
– Why is it that worse people seem to get power or is it a case of the dirty hands problem.
– Does power really corrupt or is this conventional knowledge in need of updating.
– 10 lessons for creating a system which weeds out bad actors and places good people in positions of power.
Corruptible Book Summary
This book is a fascinating deep dive into power and how it’s used, earned and effects people in the modern age. A must read for people interested in politics as well as anyone who wants to have a better understanding of power and how it effects everyone.
PART 1 – INTRODUCTION:
This book answers four main questions:
First, do worse people get power?
Second, does power make people worse?
Third, why do we let people control us who clearly have no business being in control?
Fourth, how can we ensure that incorruptible people get into power and wield it justly?
Is Conventional wisdom about power wrong?
Perhaps the conventional wisdom is right: power does corrupt! Sometimes, though, the conventional wisdom has got it all wrong.
What if power doesn’t make us better or worse? What if power just attracts certain kinds of people and those people are precisely the ones who shouldn’t be in charge? Maybe those who most want power are least suited to hold it. Perhaps those who crave power are corruptible.
Rethinking The Stanford Prison Experiment:
The Stanford prison experiment (SPE) was a psychological experiment conducted in the summer of 1971. volunteers selected to be “guards” were given uniforms specifically to de-individuate them, and instructed to prevent prisoners from escaping. The experiment officially started when “prisoners” were arrested by real police. Over the following five days, psychological abuse of the prisoners by the “guards” became increasingly brutal. You find more information about the experiment here.
A simplified conclusion was made, power corrupts.
But there was a catch. The seemingly straightforward narrative of the Stanford Prison Experiment, which had become conventional wisdom in psychology, wasn’t so clear-cut. Only some of the guards were abusive. Several resisted and treated the student prisoners with respect. So even if power does corrupt, are some people more immune than others
So, the picture is a bit murkier than we were led to believe. But even with those caveats, the experiment is harrowing. Ordinary people, if put in the right conditions, can become cruel and depraved. Are we all just sadists waiting to be unmasked once we get control over others?
The answer, thankfully, is probably not. Zimbardo’s conclusions didn’t take into account a crucial aspect of the study: how the participants were recruited.
How the participants were recruited:
To find prisoners and guards, researchers placed this ad in the local newspaper:
Male college students needed for a psychological study of prison life. $15 per day for 1-2 weeks beginning August 14th. For further information and applications, contact.
In 2007, researchers at Western Kentucky University noticed a small, seemingly insignificant detail about that ad. It made them wonder whether it had inadvertently skewed the study.
To find out, they replicated that ad, only changing $15 to $70 (to adjust for inflation since the 1970s). Every other word in the updated ad was identical. Then, they created a new ad. It was the same in every way, with one key difference: it replaced the line “for a psychological study of prison life” with the phrase “for a psychological study.” In some college towns, they placed the “prison life” advertisement.
In others, they placed the “psychological study” ad. The idea was to have one group that volunteered for a prison experiment and another group that volunteered for a generic psychology study. Would there be any difference between the people who responded?
Once the recruitment period closed, the researchers invited the prospective participants in for psychological screening and a thorough personality evaluation. What they found was extraordinary.
Those who responded to the prison experiment advertisement scored significantly higher on measures of “aggressiveness, authoritarianism, Machiavellianism, narcissism, and social dominance and significantly lower on dispositional empathy and altruism” compared to the generic study. Just by including the word prison in the advertisement, they ended up with a disproportionately sadistic batch of students.
So what does this mean?
That finding could invert the conclusions of the Stanford Prison Experiment in ways that fundamentally transform our understanding of power. Instead of demonstrating that ordinary people thrust into power can become sadistic, it may demonstrate that sadistic people seek out power.
Maybe we’ve had it backward. Maybe power is just a magnet for bad people rather than a force that turns good people bad. In that formulation, power doesn’t corrupt-it attracts.
The 4 elements of corruption:
There are a series of possible solutions to the exasperatingly complex puzzle of corruption and power:
First, power makes people worse-power corrupts. You’re running a business empire, and before you know it, you’re rigging elections and buying airplanes with money that isn’t yours.
Second, it’s not that power corrupts, but rather that worse people are drawn to power-power attracts the corruptible. The psychopathic pharmacists can’t resist climbing a doomed ship’s hierarchy, and the sadists can’t resist the allure of slipping on a uniform and beating a prisoner with a baton.
Third, the problem doesn’t lie with the power holders or power seekers, it’s that we are attracted to bad leaders for bad reasons, and so we tend to give them power. Our captains and not just of imaginary ships-are selected for irrational reasons. When they crash us into rocky reefs, we have only ourselves to blame.
Fourth, focusing on the individuals in power is a mistake because it all depends on the system. Bad systems spit out bad leaders. Create the right context and power can purify instead of corrupting. A corrupt system attracted corrupt students, and an honest system attracted honest students. Perhaps it’s not about power changing people, but rather about the setting.
Part 2 – THE EVOLUTION OF POWER
Before diving into questions of who seeks power, who gets it, and whether it changes us, we should zoom out.
There’s a more fundamental question. Why do we, as humans, set up our societies in a way that inevitably makes a small group of people powerful and a large group of people powerless?
These similarities present a seductively simple hypothesis: if you want to understand how humans relate to power, status, and hierarchy, maybe you can just look at chimpanzees. If they’re our closest animal relative, perhaps we can understand ourselves by understanding them. Decades ago, a Dutch primatologist named Frans de Waal noticed that the social structures of chimpanzees were far more complicated than was previously known.
To be in charge, a chimpanzee certainly needed to be large and physically strong. But it wasn’t guaranteed that the biggest chimp would always become the most powerful chimp. Instead, aspiring leaders had to build alliances, curry favour with kingmakers, and distribute resources. Those who did climb their way into the alpha male position had no job security. Usurpers were always waiting for a moment of weakness so they could form their own coalitions and topple him.
But as much as power influences the behaviour of chimpanzees, it isn’t their sole consideration. Just like some humans, some chimps are irresistibly drawn to power. Others try their hand at dominance, but don’t mind ending up as followers.
How humans differ from chimpanzees – a ‘fairness’ study with children:
The study had three versions.
In the first, the children would walk into a room and the lucky child would find three rewards waiting for him, while the unlucky child would find one.
In the second, both children would pull a rope. The lucky kid would again get three rewards, compared to one for the unlucky kid.
In the third setup, the children would work together equally on a task, and at the end there would still be a three-to-one split.
The idea was to see whether our instinct was toward sharing, and, crucially, whether it mattered how the rewards were allocated.
In the first version of the study, none of the children shared. In the second, some did. But the third version-in which equal, collaborative effort led to an unequal outcome-produced the most intriguing result. None of the two-year-olds shared. But an astonishing 80 percent of the lucky three-year-olds gave up one of their rewards to be on equal footing with their unlucky companion. Their instinct was toward fairness-particularly after cooperating.
More plausibly, the act of collaboration engendered a sense of ‘we’ that led children to see their partner as equally deserving of the spoils.” Tomasello and his coauthors began to wonder whether such an instinct-a cooperation instinct-had somehow evolved in humans.
But was it uniquely human? Tomasello decided to conduct a similar study with chimpanzees. When the experiments were run, sharing was rare. Crucially, the setup didn’t change the outcome at all. Collaboration was irrelevant. There was no sense of “we” and no sense of fairness. For chimpanzees, dominance doesn’t come with second thoughts.
The Evolution away from Power and Hierarchy:
The changing logic of Violence:
The development of ranged weapons changed what “the fittest” meant when it came to survival of the fittest. Size was no longer as important.
Evolutionary biologists have argued that this shift is a key reason why the physical size differences between males and females are narrower in humans than in any other great ape species. (If the scientists are correct, then part of the reason why men are usually inches rather than several feet taller than women is because of how our shoulders are designed.) But the biggest change that came from ranged weapons and the great leveling they made possible was the flattening of hierarchies-from chimpanzee despotism to hunter-gatherer cooperation.
Reverse Dominance Hierarchy
Chris Boehm, an anthropologist at the University of Southern California, developed a broadly accepted explanation for the subsequent flattening of hierarchies in human society. He coined the somewhat clunky term reverse dominance hierarchy for the phenomenon, but the idea is simple.
A dominance hierarchy is a steep triangle, with the head honcho towering over everyone else from the apex. A reverse dominance hierarchy is a flat line, where everyone is more or less equal, at least formally. Boehm explains that anyone who tried to change the flat line back into a steep triangle did so at his or her own peril. As one anthropologist put it, “All men seek to rule, but if they cannot rule they prefer to be equal.” Our instinct to rule was superseded by a stronger desire to not be ruled by someone else.
So, instead of accepting that primate-style arrangement, many early humans designed a different way of life, in which nobody could be in charge. Any individual who tried to seize power-what Boehm calls an upstart-would get dominated by the group, torn back down to the same level as everyone else. The upstart could face expulsion, harassment, even death.
The Evolution towards Power and Hierarchy:
The return of power and hierarchy:
Between eleven thousand and five thousand years ago, everything changed. Bands were mostly replaced by tribes, chiefdoms, and archaic versions of states. Hierarchical societies that did exist got more hierarchical. Our world was no longer flat. Power returned with a vengeance. What had happened?
The Changing Logic of War:
As ranged weapons became more common, the dynamics of warfare started to dramatically favour societies with more soldiers. If a few hundred people got together and formed an army under the rule of a single chief, egalitarian bands of twenty to eighty members just couldn’t compete. And when humans get together in larger groups, flat societies become impossible. Put enough people together, and hierarchy and dominance always emerge. It’s an ironclad rule of history.
Some people had to learn this the hard way. Bands that stubbornly stuck to the old ways of flat society started to get wiped out by those who joined together and embraced chiefs. Plus, on the battlefield itself, having leaders (generals) with formal power over their soldiers was much more effective than a ragtag bunch of soldiers making their own decisions.
Take this following example:
The two armies-one with five hundred archers, the other with one thousand archers-unleash their arrows at once. For simplicity, let’s say that 30 percent of the archers hit their target. Three hundred archers from the smaller army are wounded or killed (30 percent of 1,000 arrows fired equals 300), But only 150 archers from the larger army are hit (thirty percent of 500 arrows equals 150).
After one exchange of fire, it’s now a battle of 850 versus 200. The two-to-one advantage has quickly shifted to a more than four-to-one advantage. After one more volley, everyone in the smaller army will be wounded or killed. The bigger army will still have 790 archers left.
Battlefields don’t always follow the logic of math on blackboards. Tactics, terrain, the element of surprise, and the quality of weapons or soldiers all are incredibly important variables. But the key point is this: mathematical logic shows that the advantage of having a larger army is much greater for armies using ranged weapons than those engaged in close combat
Those battlefield dynamics didn’t stay on the battlefield. Once people become a general, they tend to get a taste for power. “The people that were put in charge-the military leaders-gradually usurped more power for themselves and set themselves up as chiefs,” Peter Turchin says in his Book Ultrasociety. Bands became tribes and tribes became chiefdoms.
But if Turchin is right that warfare triggered this social shift, why didn’t it happen sooner? Why was there a sudden rise in hierarchy in a narrow band of human history? The answer lies not with weapons, but with food.
The traditional explanation for that abrupt shift, popularised by Jared Diamond in Guns, Germs, and Steel goes like this: Agriculture made it easier to have excess food. Once there was more food to go around, some people hoarded it.
Those surpluses made inequality possible. They also made it possible to support a larger group of people, because growing peas was scalable in a way that hunting gazelles wasn’t. As surpluses and population sizes grew, societies became both more complex and more hierarchical. And with surpluses and hierarchy came more conflict, as individuals and groups fought to establish their primacy in a rapidly changing system.
Robert Carneiro, writing in 1970, developed a theory called environmental circumscription. The idea is elegant. He argues that the rise of agriculture put a premium on controlling land in a way that was simply absent for hunter-gatherers. What’s the point of controlling a patch of dirt if the gazelles you’re hunting are just going to move somewhere else?
With farming, your survival was linked to the soil you occupied. More soil meant more productive capacity. Controlling land became much more important.
So was it War or Food?
So, which theory is correct? Was it war, or was it the rise of agriculture? Our world is too complex for one unifying theory that explains everything. Most scholars, however, agree that both warfare and agriculture “war and peas,” if you will-played a significant role in generating large, complex hierarchical societies
The Benefits of Hierarchy:
The obvious conclusion is that hierarchy and power are neither good nor bad. They provide a tool-a tool that can be used to facilitate cooperation and community or to exploit people and kill them. Turchin agrees: “Hierarchy is like fire. It can be used to cook food or to burn people.” But without it, all of the marvels of civilisation would be impossible.
“We are not ants, Turchin explains. “We don’t have a pheromones system. So hierarchy is the only way that humans can cooperate and coordinate in large-scale societies. Plus, because hierarchy can breed competition, it can also spark innovation. Competition for status in more meritocratic societies can sometimes produce much better outcomes than if everyone just rested on their laurels as equals.
PART 3 – MOTHS TO A FLAME
It is a well-known fact that those people who most want to rule people are, ipso facto, those least suited to do it. … Anyone who is capable of getting themselves made president should on no account be allowed to do the job. -Douglas Adams, The Restaurant at the End of the Universe
Survivorship bias, is a subset of the statistical concept of selection bias. The idea is simple: you need to study all possible cases, not just the cases that “survive.”
Take this example, did cavemen really live in caves? We have plenty of evidence that they did. After all, there are hundreds of cave paintings throughout the world. That seems pretty conclusive. But how would we know if there were actually way more prehistoric Picassos living in grasslands and painting on trees? The trees-and any art brushed into their bark-are long gone. It may be that cavemen rarely ventured into caves to paint, but when they did, only that artwork was preserved. That’s why survivorship bias is sometimes referred to as the caveman effect.
Our understanding of the world is often badly skewed not just by the evidence we have, but by the evidence we don’t have.
Application of survivorship bias to Power
These insights about survivorship bias are important to understanding who seeks power, who gets power, and who stays in power. It’s not random. And if you only focus on the evidence in front of you, you’ll badly misunderstand how the world actually works.
Let’s apply survivorship bias logic to the president or prime minister of your country.
Why is that person in charge? To answer that question, three levels of survivorship bias need to be explored.
First, who seeks power? Who wants to be the boss, the leader, or the coach? In answering that question, identifying the people who don’t want to be in power is just as important at identifying those who do. Only those who try to gain power are the “survivors.” The rest are removed from consideration.
Second, who gets power? Most positions of authority involve competition. It’s not always a fair fight. Systems can be biased. And even if they aren’t, some people are just better at climbing the ladder than others. The “survivors” in this round make it into power. Those who try, but fail, don’t.
Then there’s the third level of surviving: Who stays in power? Plenty of people are a bit like Icarus: they soar too high, only to get burned and plummet back to earth. The leaders we focus on-good and bad-tend to be people who hang on to power for enough time to wield it with impact.
We tend to focus on people who hit the trifecta: they seek power; they get power; and they hold on to power. Those who make it through all three levels are the survivors in survivorship bias. They’re the individuals we consider to be powerful. Everyone else is comparatively invisible.
Who pursues power is not random. Certain types of people crave it and try to seize it for themselves. That produces a form of “self-selection bias” We recognise self-selection bias easily in other aspects of our lives. For example, tall kids are more likely to try out for the high school basketball team than short kids.
That’s why basketball teams are never a random, representative sample of the population. The same is true for those who seek power. Certain traits cause some people to want power more than others. Too much attention is paid to the notion that power corrupts. Not enough attention is paid to why corruptible people seek power.
What happens when a position of power is unattractive?
What happens when a position of authority isn’t particularly attractive? Without competition, self-selection is the only thing that matters. If only one person applies for a powerful job, then any power-hungry cretin can waltz right into authority. That’s like rolling out the red carpet to the worst kinds of control freaks. And they, too often, are precisely who run our neighbourhoods.
Fixing policy brutality:
Looking at the wrong problem:
After the horrific murder of George Floyd in the spring of 2020, police reform has taken centre stage in the United States and around the world. The problem is that most of the reform efforts are making the same kind of analytical error that the World War II generals were making before Abraham Wald set them straight.
Departments are thinking too much about how to change the behaviour of police officers they already have while thinking too little about the invisible would-be police officers they don’t have. To fix policing, we need to focus less on those who are already in uniform, and more on those who’ve never considered putting one on.
When you recruit into positions of power, it’s not just about who gets the job and who doesn’t. It’s also about who applies in the first place.
The reality is – A huge number of police officers have admirable motives for serving their community. But some don’t. “If you’re a bully, a bigot, or a sexual predator, policing is a really attractive career choice,” says Helen King, who served as assistant commissioner of the Metropolitan Police in London.
Who are the police?
To get the right people in the uniform, the image of the police department matters enormously. When local police officers start seeing their job as military missions, they’re going to hire more soldiers to complete them.
Nonetheless, so much of the debate about police reform in the United States is focused on changing police tactics: deescalation training, body cameras, banning choke holds, better oversight when force is deployed.
All are worthwhile reforms. But they’re all aimed at changing what the police do. Too little attention has been paid to a more fundamental cause who the police are. What’s likely to be more effective, spending millions trying to retrain the small group of overly aggressive people who view themselves as soldiers and see policing as a war, or attracting less aggressive people to the profession in the first place?
Beyond the obvious issues that creates, the perception of racial bias in policing creates a vicious cycle. If people believe that the police abuse racial minorities, then people who want to abuse racial minorities will be more likely to sign up. That’s one of the difficulties of police reform. To fix policing, you need better recruits-and to get better recruits, you need to fix policing.
What the police do matters. But who the police are may matter even more. And if you don’t design recruitment policies properly, you’ll end up attracting all the wrong moths to the flame of power.
Part 4 – THE POWER DELUSION
There is a fundamental truth about human society: we’re often more obsessed with how something or someone appears than with who they are or what they can do. Power is no different. If you look like a leader, it’s easier to become a leader. That’s why we often end up with a lot of cruel, incompetent people in positions of authority.
At first glance, that’s a bit perplexing, because power is relational. In other words, individuals can’t be powerful alone. To become powerful, you need people to control. Power is therefore given, not taken. Or, as primate expert Frans de Waal put it, “You cannot be a leader if you have no followers.” So, it raises the obvious question: Why do we let awful, incompetent, even murderous people control us? And why are so many white guys in ties?
The answer is partly because of the flawed evolution of our brains, dating back to prehistoric times. To see how this happened, we need to take a closer look at signaling and status symbols.
Signaling and Status:
The dimensions of signalling (honest versus dishonest, costly versus costless) are useful for analysing human behaviour when it comes to power.
We’re constantly exhibiting honest and dishonest signals about whether we are dominant and powerful or weak and submissive. Sometimes, we don’t even realise we’re doing it. But we are consciously aware of how to signal status. Big houses, Rolex watches, and designer clothes are all examples of deliberate (and costly) signaling to show excess wealth. This signaling is most effective when it’s frivolous, because it shows you’re so rich that you’re willing to effectively light money on fire for no practical benefit.
Such ostentatious displays of wealth as a mechanism to attain status were deemed “conspicuous consumption” in the late nineteenth century by the economist Thorstein Veblen. The French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu later argued that, contrary to earlier belief, such displays are completely rational because they simply represent the conversion of money into social capital. For example, philanthropists often end up being perceived as leaders in society simply by waving around big checks for good causes.
Masculinity and Leadership:
Our Stone Age minds have created a mismatch with our diet and our fears, then it seems logical to wonder whether we also have a corresponding mismatch in selecting leaders. Are we hardwired to favour traits in leaders that our Stone Age ancestors would’ve found most desirable? It seems reasonable to wonder, for example, whether the traits that would’ve made someone good at fending off saber toothed tigers or hunting gazelles are the same traits that make someone good at midlevel management of, say, a paper-supply company.
Studies have shown here’s no male gender advantage in wielding power. Yet, society acts as if one certainly exists. Take a moment to reflect on how bizarre gender politics are when it comes to political leaders. With clocklike regularity, Vladimir Putin releases photos of himself shirtless on a horse, practicing judo, or doing some other warrior show of strength. Those signals can be effective because our Stone Age brains still link some perceptions of leadership to physical size. But it’s absurd.
Imagine if you were going in for surgery and your surgeon spontaneously did twenty push-ups to show you his physical prowess. You’d find another surgeon and probably call the medical licensing board. But when it comes to political leaders, modern societies often reward masculine shows of strength. Due to evolutionary mismatch, such signals are now utterly irrelevant.
Masculine leaders and threats study:
A study found that when faces become more masculine the more they are perceived as a good leader and the effect is magnified when their is an increased security threat.
Van Vugt calls this notion-that we tend to pick modern leaders who share physical characteristics with men who would’ve made good warriors or hunters in the Stone Age-the savanna hypothesis. He explains, “Evolution has burned into our brains a set of templates for selecting those who lead us, and these templates are activated whenever we encounter a specific problem requiring coordination (such as in times of war).” It’s one of the reasons that authoritarian-style strongmen (the term is no accident) gin up fear or provoke conflicts to consolidate power. They’re activating our hunter-gatherer instincts to turn to someone who seems strong when we perceive a threat.
Friends, enemies or Strangers:
The biologist and author Jared Diamond, in his book The World Until Yesterday, argues that hunter-gatherers classify everyone into three groups: friends, enemies, or strangers.
Friends are those dozens of families that make up your band, or who are from bands you’re on good terms with. Enemies are people you recognise, but are from a rival band that lives in the same area. The third camp-strangers are rare. But, to be safe, you must automatically assume they’re potential enemies.
In the prehistoric past, hunter-gatherers would never meet someone who was from halfway across the world, meaning that encounters with people from different races were effectively close to zero. As a result, racism couldn’t have been reinforced by psychological evolution over hundreds of thousands of years the same way that biases for height and gender were. Today, many people still rely on these arcane, bigoted sorting mechanisms as a cognitive shortcut, even though it’s completely irrational.
In one experiment, researchers in Britain recruited football (soccer) fans for a psychology experiment. Everyone who wasn’t a Manchester United fan was screened out of the participant pool, but participants didn’t know that’s why they’d been selected. Then, the participants had to complete two unrelated tasks. They were told that the second task would take place in a nearby building.
The real experiment happened as participants moved from the first building to the second. Each person would encounter someone (an undercover member of the research team) who was visibly injured and needed assistance. In every instance, the encounter was the same, with just one randomised difference. A third of the time, the supposedly injured person was wearing a Manchester United jersey. A third of the time, the person was wearing the jersey from Liverpool, a rival team. And a third of the time, the injured person was wearing a neutral shirt.
The participants stopped to help those wearing Manchester United jerseys a whopping 92 percent of the time, compared to 35 percent for someone in a neutral shirt and just 30 percent for those wearing a rival-team shirt. The rates of assistance tripled, based only on a logo.
In-group and out-group affiliations need not be defined by race. As the Manchester United study shows, we can identify with other human beings for all sorts of reasons. While racism isn’t going to be overcome with quick fixes or football jerseys, forging broader forms of shared identity is one crucial first step (of many) to ensuring that leadership is populated with the best and brightest.
Part 5 – PETTY TYRANTS AND PSYCHOPATHS
Abusive supervisors are as common to workplaces as water coolers. They exist on a spectrum, from the relatively harmless overconfident, self-important blowhards to something much more sinister.
Let’s start by looking at the outliers, the psychopaths and narcissistic schemers. They’re rare. Odds are low that your boss or coach or the police officer who pulls you over is a bona fide psychopath. But because such people can be so destructive once in positions of authority, they warrant special consideration.
The Recipe for Darkness – The dark triad:
As its name suggests, the dark triad has three components: Machiavellianism, narcissism, and psychopathy.
Machiavellianism comes from the reductive caricature of a single idea from Italian political philosopher Niccolò Machiavelli-that the end justifies the means. Machiavellianism therefore refers to a personality trait marked by scheming, interpersonal manipulation, and moral indifference to others.
Narcissism, named after Narcissus from Greek mythology (who is destroyed because he falls utterly in love with himself), refers to personality traits that often manifest as arrogance, self-absorption, grandiosity, and a need for recognition from others.
And psychopathy-the darkest trait of the dark triad-often shows up as someone who lacks the ability to feel empathy and is impulsive, reckless, manipulative, and aggressive. Each of the three traits exists on a continuum.
The biology of Empathy:
While neuroscientists are still trying to understand the biology of empathy, it seems to operate through two systems, one “bottom-up” and another “top-down.”
The top-down system comes from something called a theory of mind, or mentalising. This is where we try to understand what other people are feeling and what their intentions might be.
The bottom-up system is believed to be associated with the “mirror neuron system, in which our brain activity mirrors the brain activity of someone we’re witnessing. For example, brain scans have shown that if you see someone making a disgusted face-as though they’d just smelled something awful-the same parts of your brain are activated as if you had just smelled something awful.
But not all of us are the same. Some of us react more than others to suffering. Using fMRI machines, scientists can quantify the change in brain activity from our baseline to a reaction to seeing someone else in pain. Empathy is incredibly complex, but this method gives scientists a rough proxy to measure it.
The empathy of Psychopaths:
Valeria Gazzola and Christian Keysers took that insight and measured empathy in psychopaths. In their study, twenty-one clinically diagnosed violent psychopaths were transported to their lab to be scanned.
Once inside the scanner, the psychopaths viewed someone getting hurt by another person. As the researchers expected, the neuron fireworks never went off in the way they do in the rest of us. The sections of the brain that are normally associated with emotion were dull and distant for the psychopaths. The pain of others didn’t bother them.
But there was still a puzzle. Open any book about psychopathy and the phrase superficial charm is probably on the first page. Psychopaths are smooth talkers. They’re often incredibly likable, albeit in a glib way. They seem exciting to be around. A key to their success is manipulating others, but doing so requires making others let their guard down. How could people who didn’t feel for others make us like them so effectively? To find out, Gazzola and Keysers decided to re-scan the violent psychopaths.
But this time, Professor Gazzola had an idea. She explicitly told them to try to feel for the other people-to empathise with them while watching them suffer. In that experiment, the results were completely different. The psychopaths showed neurological signs of empathy that mimicked those of normal people.
This led the scientists to conclude something surprising: psychopaths can feel empathy toward others. It just doesn’t happen naturally. Their regulation of their topdown and bottom-up processing is different from that of the rest of us.
Hiring rewards the dark triad:
Consider how we hire and promote people. Success relies on charm, charisma, and likability. Job interviews are performances. You may have gotten there with your CV, a good cover letter, and a strong recommendation. But once you’re in the room, it’s all about making the people there like you-while creating the perception that you’re qualified for the job.
The way we hire disproportionately rewards the dark triad.
Confidence and competency:
In a series of studies carried out by Professors Cameron Anderson and Sebastien Brion, they found that incompetent but overconfident individuals quickly obtained social status in experimental groups. Even when competence was easily measured and plain for all to see, being overconfident made other people perceive you as more competent than you were.
PART 6 – BAD SYSTEMS OR BAD PEOPLE?
How can we tell whether someone abusing power is a bad person or just the byproduct of a bad system?
This is a crucial question if we want to improve the world. When those in authority act like abusive monsters, we tend to interpret their behaviour as solely the product of individual choice or personality defects. Sometimes, as we’ve already seen, that’s dead-on. Psychopaths and petty tyrants rarely deserve the benefit of the doubt. But sometimes when power is misused or abused, it’s not because the person in charge is a “bad” person.
The fundamental attribution error
We, as humans, are horribly inept at deciphering the difference between awful people and awful systems. We frequently mistake unfortunate situations for malicious intent. That’s because of “fundamental attribution error” Think about the last time someone took the last parking spot at the grocery store, bumped into you in the street, or cut you off while you were driving.
What was your initial reaction-to assume that they’re an irredeemable jerk or to reflect on whether it was an accident, or that they might be behaving that way because their mom just died?
Enforcement, Culture and belief of corruption:
We even behave differently depending on how we believe a system operates, rather than how it actually operates. Chile, a robust democracy in South America, has similarly low levels of corruption to Taiwan, Spain, France, and the United States. Yet, as Andres Liberman of NYU notes, Chileans routinely find themselves amused as they read stories about foreigners-often Americans-who presume that everything south of the border is hopelessly corrupt.
When stopped by police, some American tourists try to bribe the Chilean cops, which is a crime. Back home in California or Connecticut, they’d never dream of bribing an officer. But in Chile, they’re all too willing to give it a try. It backfires. Some end up in jail on charges of attempted bribery, all because of a false belief in how a system operates. Bad behaviour clearly doesn’t arise exclusively from bad character.
Ineffective policing creates new temptations. You’ll probably get away with it, so why not try?
These insights matter enormously for understanding whether power makes people worse. If the system is to blame, then we should target our reforms at cleaning up the context. But if an individual who makes bad choices is to blame, we should target our reforms at putting better people in charge-or at least at trying to make bad people behave better.
Inheriting bad systems:
It’s worth noting that a decent person inheriting a bad system has to make choices that the person wouldn’t make in a good system.
Few of us inherit dictatorships. But many of us operate in broken systems. With constraints imposed by that context, we don’t have absolute free will. Our behaviour-good and bad-is shaped by those systems.
PART 7 – WHY IT APPEARS THAT POWER CORRUPTS
We often view power through warped eyes, mistaking inescapable features of power with corruption caused by it. Power does corrupt. But, our overly cynical view of how much power corrupts is wrong.
Some of that has to do with four phenomena that are too often overlooked when we praise or condemn authority figures. Brian Klaas calls those four phenomena dirty hands; learning to be good at being bad; opportunity knocks; and under the microscope. Each gives us a skewed perspective that causes us to believe that power corrupts people more than it actually does.
This isn’t to say that people in power behave virtuously, but rather to show that the widely held view that power makes people worse is often overblown due to cognitive mistakes we make when assessing those in charge.
1 – The Dirty hands problem:
“It is easy to get one’s hands dirty in politics and it is often right to do so,” argues Michael Walzer, professor emeritus at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, New Jersey. He coined the phrase “the dirty hands problem” to refer to the unique set of moral dilemmas that politicians and others in positions of authority-routinely face.
In turn, the people we delegate authority to are sometimes thrust into situations in which all options are immoral. No matter what they do, it could have disastrous consequences. This is not to absolve, condone, or normalise grotesque acts of abuse and violence by those in power-quite the contrary. Political leaders must be held accountable for any human rights abuses they authorise or enable. But it’s worth remembering that, sometimes, people in power weigh up two awful options and try to take the lesser evil.
For normal people, serious moral transgressions are avoidable. There’s always another option, another path to avoid doing something repugnant. The overwhelming majority of people don’t knowingly make decisions that ruin lives or snuff them out. Instead, we deflect such decisions to others. We elect or appoint or hire people to make unbearable choices that we couldn’t face.
For most people in power, the dirty-hands problem skews our evaluations of leaders by making them appear worse than they actually are. When we say “power corrupts,” we mean that power makes people worse than they previously were. Instead, much of the time, they just have to make worse decisions, which isn’t the same. We should all be glad that Honest Abe was willing to play dirty to get rid of slavery and that Churchill had the stomach to do what was necessary to defeat the Nazis. For those in power, immoral acts are, at times, clearly the most moral choice.
2 – Learning to be good at being bad:
Learning is an integral part of getting power and holding on to it. That creates a misperception. If you analysed the data, it would appear as if someone were getting worse over time-that power was corrupting them. In fact, their bad intent may have been static while their effectiveness increased. They were always corrupt. They just got better at it.
In the early 2000s, the government of Ukraine developed an ingenious strategy. In areas that had a high density of opposition voters, election day seemed normal. People cast their ballots as usual. But when officials went to count them, all the ballots were blank. They weren’t protest votes. Instead, the regime had replaced the pens in the opposition precincts with ones containing disappearing ink. After a few minutes, the X disappeared. Their rigging had gotten smarter.
These are all instances of corrupt, malevolent governments getting better at becoming corrupt and malevolent. They got worse because their tactics improved, not because power corroded a previously upstanding moral character.
3 – Opportunity knocks:
Now, let’s imagine an alternate world. In this imaginary world, human morality is governed by a precise statistical probability. Every time a person is presented with an opportunity to do something immoral or abusive, they’ll behave badly precisely 10 percent of the time. Every ten times that people come across a wallet full of cash on the sidewalk, they’ll pocket the money once. Nine times out of ten, they’ll return it to the owner intact. In such a world, who would be the least moral people?
That question has two plausible answers. The first is that everyone is equally moral. They’re all behaving badly an equal proportion of the time. Mystery solved, case closed. But the second answer-the way we normally seem to answer is that the least moral are those who behave immorally most often, or who inflict the most harm on others.
Yet, even though that logic seems badly warped, it’s how we tend to assign blame in our world. Our intuition is to determine who the “bad people” are by how often they do bad things. We make those judgments without any reference to how often an individual faced an easy opportunity to behave badly and hurt other people. That’s a particularly relevant insight for people in power, because being put in a position of authority necessarily produces more frequent—and more consequential-opportunities for wrongdoing.
Being in a position to decide the fates of others gives you the opportunity to do harm.
The same phenomenon applies to everyone in positions of authority.
They face more situations in which they can hurt others. When they make the wrong call, more people suffer. Does that mean that power made them worse people? Or do they just appear to become worse because of that increase in opportunities and the magnification of consequences? Often, it’s the latter.
4 – Under the Microscope:
Let’s again return to our mythical world of predictably corruptible people who behave badly with clocklike regularity, precisely 10 percent of the time. But now, let’s imagine that rather than picking up a lost wallet, these people are prone to embezzling from their employer.
One woman works for a midsize paper company in, say, small-town Pennsylvania. Another works for a midsize paper company in a grim commuting town outside London. Both have the same number of opportunities to embezzle. But there’s one difference: in this fictional world, the anti-embezzlement watchdog group in Britain has ten employees, and the anti-embezzlement watchdog group in America has just one employee, due to budget cuts.
What would happen if we examined the embezzlement data?
It would appear that the British embezzler was much, much worse than the American one, because she’d be caught far more often-even though they were behaving identically.
When it comes to evaluating people who behave badly, the level of scrutiny they face is an essential variable in correctly evaluating someone’s actions. This is particularly important for those in positions of immense power, because many operate under the constant gaze of a microscope.
Sometimes, the rich and powerful can use their considerable resources to divert that gaze, or to disguise abuses or crimes as legitimate activity. But much of the time, seemingly worse behaviour by those in power can be chalked up to an explanation that we consider less often: they’re simply more scrutinised than the rest of us.
Millions of cases of small-scale fraud are likely left undiscovered because the perpetrators don’t need to bother greasing the wheels to avoid detection. They just don’t control enough money to warrant a second look.
Often, a colossal iceberg of bad behaviour is under the surface. We often just see the tip of it when people in power are exposed because someone bothers to look out for it. If that’s true, then perhaps we’re all worse than we appear, but the powerful get caught more because they’re scrutinised more.
Summary – Our intuitions about power can be flawed and mistaken. Four phenomena-dirty hands, learning, opportunity, and scrutiny-make it seem that power makes people worse than they actually are. We sometimes confuse the effects of power with intrinsic aspects of holding it.
PART 8 – POWER CORRUPTS
Power Approach and Inhibition Theory:
Essentially, power leads to “approach” behaviours: people become more likely to take action, to pursue goals, to take risks, to seek rewards, and to self-promote. The powerful approach life like a gambler: if you don’t play, you can’t win. Power makes more people play and more confident that they’ll win.
By contrast, the powerless are inhibited. They’re reactive rather than proactive. They’re cautious, trying to protect what they already have rather than risking it. They’re more attuned to threats and danger from others. If the powerful are life’s gamblers, the powerless are more likely to cling to the few chips they already have.
Keltner’s work on power highlights a clear effect, in which powerful people tend to lose their inhibitions. Being “drunk with power” is an apt description. Increase people’s sense of feeling powerful and they won’t care as much what others think of them. They’ll become less effective at reading people because they’ll feel less of a need to empathise with others.
They’ll start to feel as if the rules don’t apply to them. As Keltner explains, “People who enjoy elevated power are more likely to eat impulsively and have sexual affairs, to violate the rules of the road, to lie and cheat, to shoplift, to take candy from children, and to communicate in rude, profane, and disrespectful ways.” Lord Acton was right.
Keltner wrote The Power Paradox in 2016. The book’s thesis is straightforward. He argues that being a good person-someone who is affable, altruistic, competent, and kind-helps you get power. Those traits make others admire you. They put their trust in you. They speak highly of you to their bosses. All of that allows you to rise through the ranks. But then (and this is the paradox) those same traits that helped you get to the top are swiftly eroded by the corrosive effects of power, such that you’re more likely to abuse your authority once you’re on top.
Power and Risk taking:
Another finding, which is robust and replicable, is that power increases risk-taking. In one study, volunteers were randomly assigned to take on the role of either a boss or an underling in a task. Then, they played blackjack. Those who had been in the boss role in the previous task were more likely to “hit”-to take an additional card-even when it was risky to do so. This finding makes intuitive sense.
People who find themselves in positions of power are, by definition, life’s winners. When they’ve rolled the dice in the past, they’ve won. Plus, because they’re comparatively powerful, they can afford to lose more and still stay on top. Powerless people in precarious positions avoid unnecessary risks because they can’t afford to lose. (Eventually, once people are so down-and-out that they feel they have nothing left to lose, they might be more prone to risky behaviour.)
Bizarrely, feeling powerful doesn’t just make you want to take risks, it also gives you a false sense that you can control those risks even when you quite clearly can’t. This notion is referred to by scientists as illusory control
PART 9 – HOW POWER CHANGES YOUR BODY
Several years ago, Nader and his team of researchers came up with a novel idea. They decided to test how hierarchy, rank, and status affected the experience of using drugs. It was a question worth exploring because drug addiction does seem to affect humans differently depending on their social strata. Who is more likely to get hooked? The alphas on top or those who have fallen to the bottom of the social hierarchy?
Here’s how Nader’s experiment works. They take twenty-four macaques and put each in individual pens. No other monkeys, no social hierarchy. Then, once the macaques have gotten used to being solitary, they pull the partitions up. Suddenly, there are six groups of four monkeys.
The pecking order is established almost immediately, with a clear ranking from one at the top to four at the bottom. “They figure out the hierarchy pretty quickly and it stays that way” Nader says. Once the social order is set, the researchers scan the macaques’ brains. They do that to measure the number of dopamine receptors.
What Nader and his fellow researchers found when they scanned the macaques was dumbfounding: you can change the proportion and number of dopamine receptors simply by creating hierarchies. “What we have shown,” Nader explains, “is that if the animal goes from an individual housing situation to a social group and he becomes dominant when he gets access to cocaine, it’s not that reinforcing.” Becoming a dominant monkey should, hypothetically, make you less likely to get addicted to coke.
The difference between stress and high intensity:
Modern society uses the word stress to refer to things that are intense, but not biologically stressful. Plenty of high-powered jobs are intense (or have “high demand” as Marmot would say) but aren’t stressful because we enjoy them immensely and are able to shape their outcomes (by having “high control”).
The CEO who is watching his or her start-up take off might say that their meteoric rise is “stressful” when it’s not remotely stressful in physiological terms. It’s exhilarating and wonderful. Intense, hard work doesn’t inhibit normal health processes the same ways that biological stress does. Because we conflate the two in our daily speech, we often misattribute to stress what is actually passion or intensity.
PART 10 – ATTRACTING THE INCORRUPTIBLE
10 Lessons to get the right people in Power!
Lesson 1: Actively Recruit Incorruptible People and Screen Out Corruptible Ones
When it comes to recruitment, there are three main ways to screen out bad individuals.
First, get plenty of applicants.
Second, proactively seek out the kind of people that you want in power.
And third, devote sufficient resources to screen out the corrupt and corruptible people who self-select into positions of authority.
Broader vs deeper applicant pools:
When trying to expand the pool of applicants, you need to pursue both deepening and broadening. A deeper applicant pool is one in which you get a larger number of similar applicants to what you already have, which allows you to be pickier. A broader applicant pool is one in which you recruit applicants who are significantly different from what you already have, which allows you to innovate and improve. Both are useful for improving outcomes, particularly when they occur in tandem.
Lesson 2: Use Sortition and Shadow Governance for Oversight
We shouldn’t pretend, however, that better recruitment will be a panacea. Getting sensible, moral people to put themselves forward for the responsibilities and risks of leadership will always be a challenge.
If someone was trying to rig the contest, it would’ve been a lot easier to bribe the one person tallying the votes than to bribe 787 individuals to change their guesses. If power corrupts, it’s much harder to corrupt random groups of people than it is to corrupt the small, self-selecting group of corruptible people who thirst for power. Therefore it is necessary to keep the people at the top under watch.
Oversight by sortition has several virtues.
First, because it’s random, it wouldn’t suffer from the problem of corruptible people seeking a position on a shadow board or a Citizen Assembly. Instead, many of the people in Citizen Assemblies and shadow boards would most likely be there grudgingly-and that would be a welcome change.
Second, when leaders are acting out of immorality or self-interest, it would often become obvious because it would be such a glaring contrast with the advice of the assembly or shadow board. The public would have confidence that those drafted into service by sortition aren’t making decisions to avoid upsetting lobbyists or because they’re worried about alienating a narrow interest group. Cronyism and nepotism would become much harder. Within business, a shadow board would have every reason to think longer term than the quarterly press release and be an antidote to those who are too myopic.
Third, while political systems are often geared toward deadlock, normal people tend to be geared toward compromise. When you and your friends can’t decide whether to go to Olive Garden or TGI Fridays, it’s rare to have someone walk away and launch attack ads at their rivals about the quality of the breadsticks. But politicians behave like that all the time.
Including more normal people in decision-making would put pressure on those who are actually in power to gravitate toward sensible solutions rather than performative posturing
Lesson 3: Rotate to Reduce Abuse
When King rose through the ranks and ended up as the assistant commissioner for the London Metropolitan Police with a focus on recruitment and training, she realised that the crooked drug cops had given her a valuable insight. “If you allow teams, whether it’s just two uniformed officers or an entire drugs team, to work in isolation from others and to work very closely over a long period of time, that’s where quite a lot of corruption cases will come out,” King warns.
Repeated interactions made people trust more, which made them more comfortable to launch a secret scheme. The solution to this is simple: rotate people around so nobody gets too comfortable. Fresh blood doesn’t just bring fresh perspectives. It also provides antibodies against corruption.
Rotation is important for two reasons. The first is obvious: anytime a group of people are colluding, an outsider presents a risk. The more outsiders pass through, the harder it is to successfully collude without getting caught.
Plus, when insiders who know about crooked dealings move elsewhere, they might spill the beans. Some organisations, countries, or teams have such an ingrained culture of corruption that no amount of rotation will make a difference. Rotten in, rotten out. But much of the time, the added risk of exposure from rotation is a deterrent. It stops abuse before it happens.
Rotation is also important for an unexpected reason, related to something called the Peter Principle. The concept, which was coined by its namesake, Laurence J. Peter, asserts that people tend to rise to the “level of their incompetence.” If a system is broadly meritocratic, people who perform well will rise up in the pecking order. But eventually, we all hit Peter’s Plateau the level at which our skills simply aren’t up to the job. We find ourselves in over our head. We’re no longer beating expectations. So, what happens? No more promotions. No more stellar performance. And that’s where lots of people stagnate.
Unfortunately, stagnant people are corruptible people. And the prospect of advancement is a powerful carrot to make people behave properly. When people hit Peter’s Plateau, they lose that carrot and they’re more likely to get bored with their job, which is a dangerous combination. Suddenly, someone who was following the rules while hoping to climb to the top might start to skirt the rules out of increasing frustration. Rotation helps solve both problems
Lesson 4: Audit Decision-Making Processes, Not Just Results
The real world is mind-bogglingly complex. Minor variations and flukes can drastically shift outcomes. That causes us to wrongly attribute failure to some excellent ideas while heaping praise on terrible ideas that produced improbable success. It’s the same for leaders. We wrongly conflate good results with good leadership and bad results with bad leadership. Reality is more nuanced. The lesson is simple: Don’t always focus on results and outcomes. Instead, scrutinise the decision making process much more carefully.
This is particularly important for three reasons when it comes to evaluating people in power.
First, if you reward someone for a job well done-when their success was due to luck-then you’re more likely to end up with a costly failure from a bad but lucky leader.
Second, people who are good at getting into power are also good at creating narratives that cast them in a better light than reality. They’re skilled at making us think they did a good job even when they screwed up. Better scrutiny of decision-making processes can counteract that.
And third, good leaders sometimes look bad during selected snapshots in time, even though they’re doing everything right. That can cause us to wrongly jettison good leaders or hang on to bad ones
The worst leaders are all too willing to saddle their successors with impossible challenges that they delayed dealing with, creating the illusion of smooth sailing until the new leader took control. Such manipulations make it even more likely that we’ll reward those who did the wrong thing but managed to get away with it by spin, deception, or gaming the system. To avoid that trap, we must assess the decision-making itself and carefully scrutinise results in proper context.
The problem is that nobody investigates how a decision was reached when everything turns out well. We have commissions for disasters, not successes. That needs to change. Because chance plays such an enormous role in success or failure, we should also routinely investigate successful outcomes that may have been produced by procedural failures.
PART 11 THE WEIGHT OF RESPONSIBILITY
Lesson 5: Create Frequent, Potent Reminders of Responsibility
That’s a crucial lesson: for most people, constant reminders of how their decisions could affect others can create more self-reflection and therefore improve behaviour. Wherever power can be abused, it’s crucial to remind those who wield it of their corresponding responsibility. Sometimes, such reminders are created by design, as with the Letters of Last Resort. Other times, you don’t need to design anything. The harrowing reminders are built in. Surgeons, for example, are haunted by patients who died on their operating table.
So, to create better behaviour, you have to twin reminders of responsibility with another psychological tweak: show people in positions of authority the costs and consequences of their actions. If those in authority aren’t made deeply uncomfortable by human faces right in front of them from time to time, they’re probably not doing their job right.
Lesson 6: Don’t Let Those in Power See People as Abstractions
Unfortunately, insistence on eliminating the abstract nature of decision-making is rare in today’s world. It’s easier than ever before to be a desk monster someone who damages, destroys, or even ends lives without leaving the comfort of an office chair or seeing the suffering inflicted firsthand.
Entire industries exist to divorce uncomfortable decisions from the visual fields of those who make them. These jobs often have euphemistic names such as corporate downsizing specialists or termination consultants. They can save your boss the trouble of feeling a bit of emotional discomfort from firing a longtime employee, outsourcing it to someone else. But why does that matter? What happens when serious harm gets sanitised down to a euphemism and the people who are deciding to inflict pain on others never see it firsthand?
Specificity matters. The more we encounter a person, the less the person becomes a category. As we peel back the layers of people’s personality and their inner life, they move closer to the centre of our social and psychological onion. The opposite is true, too. If someone remains an abstraction, it’s much easier to not care about the person
It’s become routine for executives in Western capitals to make decisions that drop toxic sludge half a world away or drive up the price of lifesaving drugs in the world’s poorest countries without ever setting foot in them. It’s increasingly common to get fired by people who work in a corporate headquarters that you’ve never visited. That should give us cause for concern because our moral inhibitions are lessened as the space between us increases.
PART 12 – WATCHED
If God did not exist, it would be necessary to invent him.- Voltaire
Lesson 7: Watched People Are Nice People
Ordeals provide a crucial insight: we behave better when we believe we’re being watched by a force that could punish us. We’re more honest, too, because there’s a greater risk that our lies will be exposed. Crucially, just the threat of punishment is often enough to induce better behaviour.
The oversight of God:
For thousands of years, our devil within has partly been subdued when humans have feared the watchful gaze of a deity looking down from above. Today, billions believe in a God who will punish us for our sins. That belief is so common that it seems as if it must be a natural human impulse. But it’s not. Back in the Stone Age, people didn’t likely see gods as moral enforcers.
Norenzayan argues that the specter of divine surveillance served a useful purpose for society. Because people believed they were being watched, they behaved more virtuously than they would’ve otherwise. Big Gods made people fear being caught well before detectives or investigative journalists existed. Furthermore, because society held a shared belief in the same God or gods, Norenzayan says that religiosity built up social trust. If everyone believes in divine punishment, then a shopkeeper can have more faith that you’ll pay back a debt. Both of you know that you’ll inevitably pay for it-either in this life or the next. Just as nuclear weapons act as a deterrent because of “mutually assured destruction, religion produces another form of MAD: mutually assured damnation. Shared belief creates social cohesion.
Without government enforcement, something else had to fill the void. Norenzayan argues that Big Gods filled that without them, many such societies would’ve descended into far worse chaos and disorder.
Lesson 8: Focus Oversight on the Controllers, Not the Controlled
Here’s the problem: Our modern surveillance systems have everything backward. They should be inverted. We’re watching the wrong people. The twenty-first-century panopticon should be turned inside out, so the people in power feel as if they’re constantly being watched instead.
In fact, constantly watching people-especially those who aren’t in power is a pretty good recipe for a dystopia. But to inch toward a utopia instead, we should make people in authority think that they could be watched at any time. That provides a middle ground that allows us to avoid constant invasions of privacy while still making those in charge think twice before they abuse their power.
Lesson 9: Exploit Randomness to Maximise Deterrence While Minimising Invasions of Privacy
Constant surveillance for anyone is unhealthy. Constant surveillance for run of-the-mill workers is downright unacceptable. But randomised integrity testing for those who have plenty of opportunity to cause serious harm is usually justified. That, combined with more robust oversight from nosy journalists can go a long way in deterring the worst avoidable abuses in our societies.
PART 13 – WAITING FOR CINCINNATUS
Lesson 10: Stop Waiting for Principled Saviours. Make Them Instead
Instead of waiting for our principled saviours to leave their farms, a more realistic goal is to change our systems to make more ordinary people behave like Cincinnatus: answering the call to power rather than seeking it, and relinquishing control rather than relishing its intoxicating effects as it corrupts.
Summary of the Lessons:
None of these dynamics are set in stone, however. Better people can lead us. We can recruit smarter, use sortition to second-guess powerful people, and improve oversight. We can remind leaders of the weight of their responsibility. We can make them see people as human beings, not abstractions, before the powerful turn them into victims. We can rotate personnel to deter and detect abuse. We can use randomised integrity tests to catch bad apples. And if we’re going to watch people, we can focus on those at the top who do the real damage, not the rank and file.