Saturday, August 14, 2010

The Dynamics of Power

From the Wall Street Journal an article by Jonah Lehrer that reveals the good and bad of our human tendency to form hierarchies:
A few years ago, Dacher Keltner, a psychologist at the University of California, Berkeley, began interviewing freshmen at a large dorm on the Berkeley campus. He gave them free pizza and a survey, which asked them to provide their first impressions of every other student in the dorm. Mr. Keltner returned at the end of the school year with the same survey and more free pizza. According to the survey, the students at the top of the social hierarchy—they were the most "powerful" and respected—were also the most considerate and outgoing, and scored highest on measures of agreeableness and extroversion. In other words, the nice guys finished first.

This result isn't unique to Berkeley undergrads. Other studies have found similar results in the military, corporations and politics. "People give authority to people that they genuinely like," says Mr. Keltner.

Of course, these scientific findings contradict the cliché of power, which is that the only way to rise to the top is to engage in self-serving and morally dubious behavior. In "The Prince," a treatise on the art of politics, the 16th century Italian philosopher Niccolo Machiavelli insisted that compassion got in the way of eminence. If a leader has to choose between being feared or being loved, Machiavelli insisted that the leader should always go with fear. Love is overrated.

That may not be the best advice. Another study conducted by Mr. Keltner and Cameron Anderson, a professor at the Haas School of Business, measured "Machiavellian" tendencies, such as the willingness to spread malicious gossip, in a group of sorority sisters. It turned out that the Machiavellian sorority members were quickly identified by the group and isolated. Nobody liked them, and so they never became powerful.

There is something deeply uplifting about this research. It's reassuring to think that the surest way to accumulate power is to do unto others as you would have them do unto you. In recent years, this theme has even been extended to non-human primates, such as chimpanzees. Frans de Waal, a primatologist at Emory University, has observed that the size and strength of male chimps is an extremely poor predictor of which animals will dominate the troop. Instead, the ability to forge social connections and engage in "diplomacy" is often much more important.

Now for the bad news, which concerns what happens when all those nice guys actually get in power. While a little compassion might help us climb the social ladder, once we're at the top we end up morphing into a very different kind of beast.

"It's an incredibly consistent effect," Mr. Keltner says. "When you give people power, they basically start acting like fools. They flirt inappropriately, tease in a hostile fashion, and become totally impulsive." Mr. Keltner compares the feeling of power to brain damage, noting that people with lots of authority tend to behave like neurological patients with a damaged orbito-frontal lobe, a brain area that's crucial for empathy and decision-making. Even the most virtuous people can be undone by the corner office.

Why does power lead people to flirt with interns and solicit bribes and fudge financial documents? According to psychologists, one of the main problems with authority is that it makes us less sympathetic to the concerns and emotions of others. For instance, several studies have found that people in positions of authority are more likely to rely on stereotypes and generalizations when judging other people. They also spend much less time making eye contact, at least when a person without power is talking.
There's more good stuff in the article, so read the whole thing. Example:
Although people almost always know the right thing to do—cheating is wrong—their sense of power makes it easier to rationalize away the ethical lapse. For instance, when the psychologists asked the subjects (in both low- and high-power conditions) how they would judge an individual who drove too fast when late for an appointment, people in the high-power group consistently said it was worse when others committed those crimes than when they did themselves. In other words, the feeling of eminence led people to conclude that they had a good reason for speeding—they're important people, with important things to do—but that everyone else should follow the posted signs.
But I'm happy enough to focus on this good-and-bad of our leaders.

The ability to delegate and follow leaders is an important social strength that allows us to self-organize. But the tendency of leaders to let power go to their head (think of the famous Lord Acton quote), means that we need to constantly "throw the rascals out" when it comes to politics. New blood means new leaders with a fresh memory for what it is like to live in the trenches.

So how do you get good government? Further down that Jonah Lehrer article you get a hint of an answer:
However, people in power tend to reliably overestimate their moral virtue, which leads them to stifle oversight. They lobby against regulators, and fill corporate boards with their friends. The end result is sometimes power at its most dangerous.

That, at least, is the lesson of a classic experiment by the economist Vernon Smith and colleagues. The study involved the dictator game, a simple economic exchange in which one person—the "dictator"—is given $10 and asked to divide the cash with another person. Although the dictators aren't obligated to share—they are in a position of pure power—a significant majority of people act generously, and give away $2 or more to a perfect stranger.

There is one very simple tweak that erases this benevolence. When the "dictators" are socially isolated—this can occur, for instance, if the subjects are located in separate rooms, or if they're assured anonymity—more than 60% of people keep all of the money. Instead of sharing the cash with someone else, they pocket the $10. Perhaps the corner office could use a few more windows.
Transparency, "freedom of information" acts, a responsible and active press ready to question leaders closely, an "informed public" willing to hold their leaders accountable, and frequent elections in which you can throw out the rascals and bring in a new set of less corrupted rascals.

This reminds me of the famous Winston Churchill quote:
Many forms of Government have been tried and will be tried in this world of sin and woe. No one pretends that democracy is perfect or all-wise. Indeed, it has been said that democracy is the worst form of government except all those other forms that have been tried from time to time. Speech in the House of Commons (1947-11-11)

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