Why do corrupt people end up in power?
By way of an answer, you probably think of that famous quote from Lord Acton, “Power tends to corrupt; absolute power corrupts absolutely.” But my guest today, Brian Klaas, would say that’s only one part of what leads to corrupt individuals and cultures, the other being that people who are already corrupt are more likely to seek power in the first place. Brian argues that if we ever hope to develop better systems, from our national governments to our office hierarchies, we have to work on both prongs of this dynamic, not only preventing people who gain power from going bad, but encouraging good people to seek power as well.
Brian is the author of Corruptible: Who Gets Power and How It Changes Us, and today on the show, he and I discuss how people who possess the so-called “dark triad” of traits are more attracted to positions of power, how the framing around those positions can either amplify or alter this self-selection effect, and what a tyrannical homeowners’ association president and a psychopathic school janitor show us about these dynamics. We also discuss why power does indeed corrupt people and can in fact change their very brain chemistry. Brian explains the importance of accountability in keeping a system clean, and how you can serve in positions of power without becoming corrupted yourself.
Resources Related to the Podcast
- AoM Podcast #108: The Upside of Your Dark Side
- AoM Podcast #769: The New Science of Narcissism
- Michael Nader’s study on social status in monkeys
- M.G. Marmot’s Whitehall II study on social status and mortality
- AoM series on status
- Ultrasociety by Peter Turchin
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Read the Transcript!
Brett McKay: Brett McKay here and welcome to another edition of the Art Of Manliness Podcast. Why do corrupt people end up in power by way of an answer, you probably think of that famous quote from Lord Acton, “Power tends to corrupt. Absolute power corrupts absolutely.” My guest today, Brian Klaas would say that’s only one part of what tends to corrupt individuals and cultures, the other being that people who are already corrupt are more likely to seek power in the first place. Brian argues that if we ever hope to develop better systems from our national governments to our office hierarchies, we have to work on both prongs, this dynamic not only preventing people who gain power from going bad, but encouraging good people to seek power as well. Brian is the author of Corruptible: Who Gets Power and How It Changes Us. Today on the show, he and I discuss how people who possess the so-called dark triad of traits are more attracted to positions of power, how they’re framing around those positions can either amplify or alter the self-selection effect and what a tyrannical homeowner’s association president and a psychopathic school janitor, show us about these dynamics, we also discuss why Power does indeed corrupt people and can in fact change their very brain chemistry.
Brian explains the importance of accountability and keeping a system clean, and how you can serve in positions of power without being corrupted yourself after the show is over, check at our show notes at aom.is/powercorrupts.
Alright, Brian Klaas, welcome to the show.
Brian Klaas: Hey, thanks for having me.
Brett McKay: So you have made a career for yourself interviewing despots, cult leaders, corrupt CEOs, tortures, criminals. How did that happen when you were 12, where you’re like, I wanna research human depravity like what was going on there?
Brian Klaas: Now, it’s funny. So I got interested in politics from a young age because my mom ran for the local school board, which I’m sure we’ll talk about later on in the interview, but what ended up happening was I graduated from undergrad. I worked on a political campaign in my home state of Minnesota, of course, I actually was a bartender before that in New Zealand for a little bit, I started trying to find my way in life and decided to study broken systems, ’cause I thought naively, this is more than a decade ago, I thought, “Oh, US politics, it sort of just works, so I’ll try to study somewhere that’s totally, totally broken.” And I went off and started doing field work as part of grad school in sub-saharan Africa, Eastern Europe, Southeast Asia, the Middle East, etcetera, and found that the most interesting thing to do is to gravitate towards interviewing some of the worst people in the world, and that’s what I ended up doing for the last 10 years and sort of trying to figure out what makes people tick in this sort of depraved world with the hopes that we can eventually stop them from inflicting so much harm in the world.
Brett McKay: And what you’ve done in your recent book, Corruptible: Who Gets Power and How It Changes Us, is explore this idea after interviewing all these corrupt people, figure out this question I think people have, is does power corrupt us or do corrupt people gain power? Why do corrupt people seem to gain power? Before we get to your findings, what do you think are some of the common ideas that people generally have about power and who ends up with it, and when did you start having a hunch that maybe some of our assumptions about power is corrupting influence were off.
Brian Klaas: Yeah, I… The most famous thing, and this is something that to this day, when I talk about the fact that I’m a political scientist or that I study power, the standard response people say to me is, “Oh yes, I know power corrupts. Absolute power corrupts, absolutely.” It’s the standard thing that you sort of try out as a witty quote when you’re dealing with power at a superficial level, and it is true, there’s an entire chapter of the book that talks about why power corrupts, how it corrupts, how it changes our brain chemistry, our psychology, etcetera. So it’s real. But what occurred to me the more that I started to think about this was that we focus on the powerful and we don’t focus on the people who never seek power. So one of the things that was immediately obvious to me when I was interviewing, say, a war criminal or a former dictator or someone who had wielded power in a highly unjust way, is that they’re not a normal cross-section of the population.
And so what I thought was missing from this conversation is, what about the people who never seek power, and also what’s different about people who are really good at getting power? Because every time that we focus our attention on the sort of tip of the iceberg, the people who actually have power. We’re ignoring a much bigger problem, which is that certain kinds of people are drawn to power in the first place. So the book is trying to sort of do this chicken or egg question, which is, do corruptible people seek power? Or does power corrupt? And the answer is both, but the real problem is that you have to actually diagnose each situation according to actually what’s happening, because otherwise the remedy is totally different, in other words, if an awful person gets power and hasn’t been changed by the power itself, then there’s a different solution to that problem, then if power has turned them bad and they previously were good. So even though both effects are real, figuring out which one is operating in which context is absolutely crucial to making the world a better place.
Brett McKay: Okay, so before we get to this chicken and egg problem, does power corrupt? Do corrupt people seek power? I think it helps to understand, first why humans have a tendency to form societies where there’s either one person or a small group of people who have power over a large group of people going back through human history, was this something our hunter-gatherer ancestors did? What did power look like for them?
Brian Klaas: Yeah, so the sort of standard narrative around hunter and gathers in anthropology and evolutionary biology goes something like this, that for almost all of human history, we lived in small bands of around 80 people, and societies were structured in a way that was ruthlessly egalitarian. I said ruthlessly, because the system was designed to basically cut down anyone who decides… Who tried to seize power for themselves. And this was made possible by the fact that we lived in small groups. So everybody knew each other, 80 people, is not that many. Now, there are some wrinkles in this sort of simplistic narrative that have been emerging in recent years, there’s some evidence that there was a little bit more hierarchy than we expected in the past in some pockets and so on. But this is sort of a general idea of what most of the anthropology evidence suggests, and we know this from a few different forms of evidence, including the fact that like burials, for example, for most of human history, don’t show any sort of elevated status for individuals.
Now… Since the sort of period 10 to 15000 years ago, where a lot of this changed, there’s a few different hypotheses about why powers started to get amassed in individuals, and I call them the war and the Ps hypothesis. War and Ps. And the war hypothesis is basically that as conquest started to take place, it became advantageous to have big groups of people, so if you had more soldiers, you’re gonna win. And as it became better to have bigger societies, you started to sort of conquer other bands, and then absorb them into yours, and all of a sudden you’ve got 5000 people instead of 80, you need some sort of hierarchy.
The Ps hypothesis is about agriculture, and it basically says when the agricultural revolution happened, you no longer had to move around to get your food, you can sort of set up shop in a city, and that allows much larger groups of people to sort of put down roots quite literally, and as a result of that, you end up with larger cities and with larger cities comes inevitably the rise of hierarchy, but the really big point here, I think, is that the way that we experience the world with bosses above bosses above bosses, everything in society status driven is extremely unusual in the grand sweep of human history, and I think that’s something that’s worth keeping in mind because it doesn’t necessarily have to be this way, and of course, when it comes to abusive power holders, it absolutely doesn’t have to be this way, we can make a better system that produces better outcomes, perhaps with less hierarchy or perhaps just with hierarchy that functions better.
Brett McKay: Yeah, that’s a good point you made, you pointed out that there are advantages of hierarchy ’cause it allows you to get more done. If responsibility is diffused amongst the group, you don’t need issues of freeloader problem, like this guy’s not doing his thing, but if there’s a hierarchy you can get a lot more done. And the trick is, okay, if you’re gonna have a hierarchy, how can you organize in a way so that the hierarchy isn’t abused?
Brian Klaas: Yeah, I mean, there’s a guy named Peter Turchin who I interviewed for the book, he’s one of these sort of genius types, really impressive, impressive guy who wrote this book called the Ultrasociety. And one of the quotes he had that stuck with me was he says, “We’re not ants, we don’t have some pheromone system to regulate our behavior, so in order to organize human society, we probably eventually do need hierarchy, it’s probably unrealistic to imagine some sort of egalitarian collective involving 192 countries and 8 billion people.”
So the more pressing question is, does hierarchy always have to come with abuse? And I think the answer is absolutely not. And that’s why I wrote this book because I think there’s a lot of ways that we can make seeking power something that’s oriented towards service, and also ending up with systems in which those people who do abuse their power get thrust out of power rather than promoted. So it’s all about tinkering with the system and thinking of our world as this sort of grand experiment where instead of being on autopilot, which I think we have been for quite a long time, in how we sort of deal with power in society, we start to actually think about how would we engineer a system that’s actually gonna produce better leaders and hold people to account when they behave badly. And I don’t think that conversation tends to exist, we just tend to gripe about this, it goes back to your question about what people’s attitudes are towards power, the thing is…
And this is something that I think like political scientists and business, psychologists, all sorts of people should be thinking much more about is like pretty much everybody I talk to is unhappy with the powerful class in society. I’ve never really had a situation where I’ve talked about my research and they’re like, “There’s no problem. It’s all going pretty well.” No one says that and that should be a wake-up call, that we just shouldn’t keep doing the same thing over and over, and hope that it turns out better.
Brett McKay: And something you point out in the book, you do a good job, is that these gripes occur not only on the macro level, not on the nation-state level, but you see these gripes occur within businesses, departments in businesses within homeowner’s association, within church congregations, you see people griping about the people in charge.
Brian Klaas: Yeah, it’s a universal problem, and it’s not just… Even though my research began in rooms with former dictators and so on, and people who are at the highest echelons, generals in authoritarian societies and all that. What occurred to me in writing this was that the more I would tell people who had lives back home in the United States or in Britain where I live now, about my experiences and I describe these encounters, they would say that personality that you’re describing sounds just like the guy who was the megalomaniac sports coach, or the guy who, as you say, runs my homeowner’s association. And it sort of gave me a working hypothesis for the book, that there’s like… There’s something about power that’s worth studying, not just about these sort of extremely high echelons that we tend to think of and that make headlines, that actually there’s a sort of syndrome around power that operates even on the small stages of hierarchy and authority, and I think that’s born out…
I did try to find people, and I described a psychopathic janitor, in one of the chapters, I describe a megalomaniac homeowner’s association who’s obsessed with palm trees being trimmed just the right way and the gravel in the area being not imported from out of-state, we all sort of have in our mind’s eye, somebody like this in our life, everybody I’ve talked to about with this book, when I describe my work, they always come up with, “Oh, that’s this guy, is this person, I used to have to deal with, and thank God, I never have to deal with that person again, because I’ve just cut my losses. ”
It’s a universal human experience, and I don’t think… I’m not naive enough to say we can eliminate those sort of universal human experiences of power abusers, it’s just that we can curtail how often we encounter them, and I think that even if we made this 20% better, the scale of human suffering and frustration that it would reduce would be absolutely enormous and transformative. So I think it’s definitely worth doing even if we can only curb the problem rather than eliminating it.
Brett McKay: Alright, so let’s dig in more to why it seems like just bad people end up in power. And the first prong of this idea is that, power or positions of authority attract a certain type of person, so there’s like a selection bias going on, so what does your research say about the type of person that’s attracted to positions of power and authority?
Brian Klaas: Yeah, so I think there’s a few things to say here first off, when we describe someone who’s power-hungry, it’s always a bad thing, but power-hungry by definition is what you’re describing when you’re saying who is seeking power in a competitive environment, somebody who’s ambitious and power-hungry is more likely to throw their hat in the ring to apply for a job, a promotion, to become a dictator.
And I think it’s really easy to understand the sort of selection bias without being a social scientist, I mean you think about. If you go to a high school basketball try out, you would be completely baffled if the average student at that high school basketball try out was of average medium height, there’s a self-selection effect, the tall kids go towards basketball. And the same thing happens with power, you have certain traits that self-select towards these positions more than others, one of them is obviously those people who are power-hungry, but there’s also what I describe in the book is what’s called the dark triad, which is this sort of destructive chemical cocktail of personality traits of Machiavellianism sort of the ends justifies the means types of people, how we’re strategic thinkers. And then secondly, narcissists. And thirdly, psychopathy or being a psychopath.
And those three traits in common form something called the dark triad, and those people are obsessed with power, and they’re very, very good at getting it, so… That’s on the extreme end. These are the people who are disproportionately likely to seek power get it And then wield it with immense destructive potential. There’s also just something about the systems that we inhabit that amplify the self-selection effect in really awful ways. So when you think about those systems that involve public service, and they’re quite clearly are designed to serve the public, like if you’re a librarian, you don’t have people who are power-hungry librarians, because everybody knows that the job is not about sort of being a megalomaniac, it’s about helping people, and so the way you portray positions of power, I think is really, really important.
And there’s a section of the book I talk about this with in terms of policing that I think illustrates the point best of all, and it’s basically looking at how recruitment for policing operates, and I found some quite different examples of this internationally. So in the US, there is an ad that was put up on the door of Georgia Police Department website now taken down, that shows the punisher logo first a vigilante, a guy who basically captures criminals and then tortures them, and then shows these guys in military fatigues in a literal tank screaming interview with death metal on screen, the sort of hatch opens, they throw out a smoke grenade, they’ve got assault weapons, and then the punisher logo comes back on screen and you sort of think What kind of person says, “That’s exactly what job I want.”
Well, militaristic people who like the idea of sort of being viewed as soldiers in an occupying army, not public service police officers. And in New Zealand, they recognize the self-selection problem and deliberately designed advertising recruitment schemes aimed at counteracting it. Not because they didn’t want people with military experience, they just figured they’re gonna sign up anyway, but because they thought, “We can counteract some of the self-selection by making policing look more service oriented.” So they designed this recruitment scheme with videos called, do you care enough to be a cop? And in one set of videos, there’s a hungry boy walking around a city in New Zealand with hidden cameras around to see who stops to help him, and the implication is, if you’re one of the people who would stop to help this boy, you should sign up to be a cop. And lo and behold, what happened was quite predictable, the diversity in terms of people who applied for the police expanded dramatically, the types of personality profiles changed, they were much more public service oriented, the relationship between the police and various communities improve significantly and levels of police violence decreased.
And it’s not rocket science, it’s like if you set up a system of power to… Appearing to be oriented toward service, people who are oriented toward service are going to apply for it. And I think unfortunately, in a lot of the modern world, the trappings of power, the status symbols, the sort of fame, all these things, they put those self-selection effects I described earlier on steroids and make sure that the people who are power-hungry are far more likely to self-select into those positions of power in the first place. And so to me, the thing that we get wrong about power, that we really have to think about is what I said at the beginning of this idea of just focusing on the tip of the iceberg, if we only analyze who the powerful people are and how they behave, and we don’t think about the people who don’t end up trying to become more powerful in our societies, we’re missing like 90% of the problem because the problem isn’t to make bad people behave better, it’s to make good people want to seek power in the first place.
And I think the thing that really alarms me in modern society is that becoming powerful comes with lots of risks, think about running for political office, it’s a vial cesspool, like most people listening to this would never in a million years consider running for office because they’re like, “I don’t wanna destroy my life, I don’t wanna constantly have to raise money, I don’t wanna have to pretend that I believe things that I don’t believe.” And all of those things which now have become part and parcel of being a modern politician, they’re gonna repel exactly the kind of person that we want to be a modern politician, and all the people who love the power, the money, the fame and don’t really care about having to ask for money or pretend that they believe stuff they don’t. Those people are gonna make a beeline to run for office.
And so my big worry about this is that we’ve constructed a society in which public service oriented people just bow out, they just don’t… They don’t think about this, and it goes back to what I was talking about with the school board member mom that I have, she used to be a school board member and she sort of inspired me to get interested in politics, I mean, even today, you see videos of school board members who are getting death threats, who are getting their children sometimes get harassed outside of schools, it’s like, this is totally crazy, and it didn’t use to happen in the 1990s when I was growing up, and there was the sort of the big dramas in the school board locally were about union pay disputes or some parents who’s upset that evolution is being taught in school, but not like death threats. I think we also have to think really carefully about how we can make power attractive to the kinds of people who currently think it would be a terrible burden that they don’t wanna touch with a 10-foot pole.
Brett McKay: Well, yeah, you can see this again on a micro level, I wanna talk about this homeowner’s association guy. Being a homeowner’s association president sounds like the most thankless job ever, ’cause you’re just basically… You’re dealing with neighbors snipping at each other and like, “Well, this guy did this with his fence and I don’t like that, and this guy is putting his garbage cans out at the wrong time and he’s got his RV out,” and then you don’t really get thanked for it. And so you have people, it’s like, “I don’t wanna be homeowner’s association president,” and so there’s a power vacuum, and so it’s gonna attract people with these dark triad personality who are power-hungry, narcissistic, Machiavellian, and this happened, this homeowner’s association in Arizona. Tell us about this guy, ’cause it just sounds… Everyone always loves to complain about their HOA, this is on steroids. What happened with this thing?
Brian Klaas: Yeah. So I talked to a guy who… I had to change all the names for legal reasons in this, but I talked to this guy who went through the saga from hell of homeowner’s association and what you describe is right. It’s worse though than just being thankless, it’s actually actively bad because you have to police your neighbors on things that are totally inconsequential, like when they put their trash bins out and how they’re mowing their grass and all this type of stuff, which attracts a certain type of control freak. So in this specific example, it’s a homeowner’s association in Arizona, a reasonably small community, nobody really wants to do the job, and all of a sudden this guy just emerges out of the woodwork and is really, really excited to do the job, which is like… The alarm bells should be going off at this point, right? And he starts basically consolidating power, purging the homeowner’s association, and all the other people are like, “Yeah, we don’t really wanna be here anyway, so if you want to replace us, that’d be great.”
But unfortunately for them, the people he replaced them with were like his cronies who were like subservient to him, never challenging his power, and he started to target these individuals by name in various newsletters, and I’ve read dozens of these newsletters. They were sent to me so I could verify all this information. And they’re like the craziest, nuttiest thing. It’s all these all caps things insinuating there’s some plot out to not trim their palm fronds to sufficient code and so on. And then when these people start to stand up to him and say, “We’re gonna try to boot you out of the HOA because you’ve become this power-hungry tyrant.” He develops all these new rules that begin to target them specifically, going after the kinds of gravel they have in their yard. A rock at one point gets thrown through their window and they suspect it’s this guy who’s behind it. I mean, it’s utterly bizarre.
And what’s been interesting in writing the book is I found this story and talked to this person and thought, “This is quite a bizarre situation,” it’s actually the thing that I’ve gotten the most emails about, I would say, since my book came out, is like these people unloading their HOA stories on me. And I’m like, “It’s not my professional job to be an HOA chronicler, it’s just part of a book I wrote about power.” But these people are venting because they’re like, “Finally, someone has captured the fact that we have neighborhood tyrants who are ruining our lives.” And I think this is an under-scrutinized world because they actually control a lot of money in the United States. The actual amount of assets controlled by HOAs is mindboggling.
I think the number is something like the equivalent of the State of Florida’s tax revenue. So you’re talking about a lot of really power-hungry, busy bodies controlling a lot of money. Now, if there are any HOA presidents out there listening to this, I’m not saying that you are a power-hungry individual. It’s more that there’s a disproportionate selection effect. Any time that you have a job that is actively policing people on the most trivial stuff, unpaid and voluntary, the self-selection effect, I think, tends to go on steroids in those environments. And that’s why I think modestly, as a proposal I might suggest, if you want better people in HOAs you might wanna pay them a little bit so at least you’re not just getting the person who gets off on the power of policing their neighbors trash cans.
Brett McKay: We’re gonna take quick break for a word from our sponsors.
And now back to the show.
Well, another trait of people who are power-hungry is psychopathy, and you saw this, again, this is a really small school. This is this janitor who basically became Tony Soprano in this school district. What’s that story? What happened there? How was he able to accumulate so much power in the school district?
Brian Klaas: Yeah. So this guy’s name is Steve Raucci, and I don’t have to change his name because he’s been convicted of crimes and is in prison. Steve Raucci was someone who perhaps had modest ambitions by most people’s standards. He was a janitor at the Schenectady New York State High School, and he wanted to be a sort of king pin in the school district maintenance office. So he systematically set about to achieve this through incredibly Machiavellian scheming. One of my favorite stories, and I went through so many court files and so on, in researching this bit of the book because going inside the mind of a psychopath is a very odd thing to do. But one of the plots he hatched in the sort of early days of consolidating power was that the school district wanted to save money by reducing its energy costs, so they appointed an energy Tzar, so to speak, whose job was basically to reduce the school’s energy bill.
And this guy who was put in charge of it just sort of… It’s a standard story, like the district asked you to do this, you have no experience in it, and you just sort of say, “Yeah, okay, I’ll do it.” And so Steve Raucci sort of spotted an opportunity. He said, “Look, I know that you don’t really understand the software that’s been presented to you to manage the school district’s energy supply, I can just sort of manage it for you and you can take the credit.” Now this guy accepts because he’s sort of overwhelmed by the software and doesn’t know what he’s doing. Steve Raucci takes control of the software and starts manipulating it. He starts turning on the stadium lights on public holidays. He starts increasing the amount of time the heating is on and that the lights are on on weekends, just to try to ramp up the energy bill basically.
And lo and behold, his plan works. The guy who was appointed energy Tzar is relieved of that position because the energy usage has actually gone up. And so Raucci is then made into the energy Tzar for the district, and he operated like this throughout his whole time in his pursuit of power. He became a senior official in the union, and ultimately, started making quite a lot of money as he rose through the ranks. But he also did this weird stuff where like when people would cross him, he would make examples of them and then make everybody else around him observe the fact that he had punished them. So at one point, he believes that he knows someone who has whistleblown on him. That he’d been sort of behaving like a tyrant in the district maintenance office and needed to be dealt with.
So all of a sudden these people’s homes the next morning has the word “rat” spray-painted across the house. And Raucci doesn’t admit to it, but basically forces his employees on the clock to make a pilgrimage in school district vehicles to observe that these people have gotten what they deserved. And there’s also stuff about his personality where like, he says stuff in various recordings that were then turned over to the court the wire taps and so on, where he talked about, “I wish I could have had a twin so that I could have had a Steve in my life,” thinking that he was really sad that he didn’t have himself to turn to because he was so great. These sort of delusions of grandeur. Anyway, the reason he ends up in prison is because he starts going over the top with his punishment of people who crossed him, he places explosives on the car of a colleague, he has explosives in his office in the school district itself, and has night vision goggles in his office as well, which is quite an unusual thing for a sort of maintenance official at a public high school to have.
The reason I use him in this story though, is because what’s really interesting about psychopaths is that Raucci is an example of an undisciplined non-functional psychopath, which is to say when he needed to turn down these traits, he couldn’t. It was impossible for him. But for a lot of functional psychopaths as they’re called, they can turn them down at times when they need to. And this is something where the sort of all the psychopath researchers I spoke to said that superficial charm is part of the psychopath modus operandi. And that the functional psychopaths can switch on their empathy when they need to, they can sort of blend in when empathy or being chameleon-like in a certain situation is advantageous. And those people, the functional psychopaths, the point they all make is those are the people in the board rooms and in elected office.
Not universally, obviously, there’s still a small percentage of the overall pool, but the best research that I’ve read places the rate of psychopaths in leadership positions between four times and 100 times higher than the general public, depending on how you define a psychopath, and depending on which research paper you read. But it’s pretty much agreed they’re definitely over-represented in the halls of power.
Brett McKay: Okay. So there’s a certain type of person attracted to power, narcissistic, Machiavellian, psychopathic. So these people are very confident, they got superficial charm and they’re able to manipulate people and things for their ins to gain that power. And you think, “Well, that’s so terrible like, why do we even let these people get into positions of authority and power,” but then you highlight research saying, “Well, actually followers, people who are subordinates, actually like those kind of people and put those people in the power.” So what’s going on there? Why is it that we’re attracted to people with these traits, but at the same time repulsed by it? What’s going on?
Brian Klaas: Yeah, there’s a few things that are worth mentioning here. One of them is how narcissists, for example, make more money. And this has been shown in lots of research. One of the reasons for that is because in sort of modest levels, medium levels, I should say, narcissism can be advantageous for getting people to like you, because part of being a narcissist is an obsession with how other people perceive you, and when you really care about that sort of perception management, it may be good for making money and also advancing in life. Now, it comes at a cost, of course. There are things about narcissists that are highly undesirable, and it’s not a good strategy in general, but perhaps in the workplace in modest doses it might be effective.
And this helps explain why sometimes managers, politicians, etcetera, are so narcissistic and also so successful. They’re good at manipulating other people. Now, I also think it’s worth pointing out a lot of our leadership selection is non-rational, it’s irrational. And the reason that matters is because we like to think that we’re making sort of evidence-based rational assessments when we decide who to cast a ballot for or who we want to be in charge of us in the workplace, but lots of scientific evidence counteracts that notion. So the best example of this, and the one that just sort of… It blew my mind when I read this, but it’s been replicated, it’s a very solid finding published in… I forget if it was in Science or Nature, but one of the top two scientific journals in the world.
What the researchers did is they showed children a series of faces, no other information, just two faces. And they said, “Who do you want to be in charge of your ship in this computer simulation we’re gonna ask you to play?” So all you see is two pictures of human faces and nothing else, and you have to pick one or the other. What the kids didn’t know was that the two faces weren’t random. One of them was the winner of a French parliamentary election in a given district, and the other face they saw was the runner-up in that same district. So the winner and the loser. And overwhelmingly, the overwhelming majority of the time, the kids picked the winner to Captain their ship. And when they did this with adults, they got a similar result, which all it says is that there’s something about face that conveys leader to us.
And if that’s the case, that really causes us to sort of pause for a second and say, “Wait a minute, if you can accurately predict the winner of an election based on faces alone, then we have a real cognitive bias around leadership that we need to understand better because otherwise, we end up making stupid decisions based on superficial characteristics.” And I think the more that I read about this sort of realm of research in psychology and evolutionary anthropology and so on, the more that it became clear to me that this myth of rational leadership selection it’s just a myth. It’s not true, and there are some things that are rational and that are sort of reasoned in terms of how we select our leaders, but a significant chunk of it is down to intuition and other things that are not rooted in sort of a rational assessment.
Brett McKay:Okay. So we’ve discussed, okay, so there’s a certain type of person attracted to power, often times not the best kind of person. Us as followers, we actually are attracted to those people sometimes, but let’s talk about this idea of power corrupts. This Lord Acton, he said, “Power corrupts. Absolute power corrupts absolutely.” And you say… Your research says, “Yes, power does corrupt, can corrupt us.” So what happens to us psychologically when we are put in positions of power and authority. How does it change us?
Brian Klaas: Yeah, so it changes us on a few levels, it changes us psychologically, and it changes as physically. There’s a few things I’ll point to. I talk about this at length in the book. So I won’t be able to talk about everything, but there’s just a few things I’d highlight. One is that you start to think about people below you in the hierarchy as abstractions, and there’s sort of this asymmetry that produces this view of being an abstraction. And what I mean by this is that you think about why is it that many of us remember our boss’s birthday and yet we’re disappointed because our boss doesn’t remember our birthday, it’s because there’s an asymmetry there where you have… In order to get ahead, you need to remember these facts, you need to be carefully attuned to the person above you in the hierarchy.
And as soon as you go up in the hierarchy, your success level is not necessarily predicated on what other people below you think as much as people above you. And so there starts to be this sort of discounting effect which leads to abuse because as you become less interested in these sort of granular details of other people’s lives below you, it’s easier to sort of discard them, and there’s lots of psychology research that shows that people in power become more reckless, more willing to believe that they can affect outcomes that they can’t actually affect. It’s a system called illusory control. They become more impulsive, they also skirt the rules more, etcetera.
One of the things that I remember that stood out to me is a very simple explanation of this, when I was talking about the book early on after it came out, I was interviewed by Andrew Yang, who is the former presidential candidate on the Democratic side, and I asked him, I said, “What was this like for you? You all of a sudden got thrust in this position where you didn’t have name recognition, now you’re a household name.” And he says it was super awful to have this sort of recognition that his mind was changing by the basic fact that he walked into a room for a year, everybody stood up and cheered every joke he told, even if it sucked, they would laugh uproariously at.
The people around him wanted to suck up to him, and it just changes your mindset, this isn’t… It’s not rocket science, it makes sense that this would happen, but I think for people who don’t experience that, it’s hard to sort of understand how corrosive it could be in your thoughts and sort of this idea, you start to walk on water. Now, I said before that, it also changes your physical basis, and this I’m specifically talking about your brain chemistry, and one of my favorite studies in the book, it’s a fascinating world of research on Macaque monkeys, is a guy named Michael Nader, who’s a professor and doctor out in Wake Forest, who works with cocaine and addiction, and what he basically does is he takes these monkeys that are initially independently housed, in other words they’re alone in a pen, and then they sort of raise the barriers and put four monkeys together and within 10 minutes, the monkeys have established a hierarchy: One, two, three, four. It’s super easy to tell who’s which.
And then what they do is they put the monkeys in this chair they’ve been trained to use, where they either pull one lever and get banana pellets food, or they pull the other lever and they get cocaine intravenously injected into their bodies, and it’s like pure cut cocaine, right, it’s really top-notch cocaine. So the point is that when they do this, it always happens the same way, the first and the second monkeys in the hierarchy, the top two, always take the banana pellets and the third and fourth who end up in a subordinate position, always self-medicate with the cocaine and when you take the monkeys and re-house them, if you were monkey one in the first housing arrangement and you end up as monkey four in the next one, through bad luck or whatever, you change, you go from banana pellets to cocaine.
And so what they found is that the dopamine receptors in the brain actually shift due to hierarchy and status, they actually have a physical chemical change in their brains as a result of changing place in the hierarchy, and this… Again, it’s one of those hidden aspects where it’s like, “Okay, if we accept this… At least if we accept it’s true in monkeys, it’s very likely to be true in us ’cause we’re primates as well,” that really causes us to maybe think a bit more carefully about what we do when people get immense, immense power, like they become presidents or congress people, because at that point, you sort of think something is actually changing about them, and we don’t do anything. We just sort of say, “Good luck, I hope you make the right decision.” And I think there’s some of this where we need to acknowledge that power does genuinely act like a drug, and we have to find ways to counteract it, to make the world a little bit better place.
Brett McKay: Yeah, the research about monkeys is really interesting because the… It seems like the lower status monkeys, they’re more stressed out, so they’re gonna go for the cocaine to self-medicate while the higher status monkeys, they’ve got power, and then power acts like a natural drug, so they don’t need the cocaine to self-medicate, but the downside is they wanna hold on to that high, so they’re not gonna wanna give up their power. So they’re gonna do what they have to do to stay on top. And you see something similar with humans too, if you look at the research, people who are higher in the social hierarchy, they often live longer than people who are lower in the social hierarchy because they’re feeling good, while people who are lower in the social hierarchy, they’ve got more stress and they’ve got less advantages, so they feel bad, but there are exceptions to this.
Sometimes people who are in positions of power and authority, they live shorter lives, and it has to do with whether that person in power or authority has any control. So basically the finding was, if you’re in a position of authority but you have no control, that’s pretty terrible for you, it can just makes you feel terrible.
Brian Klaas: Yeah, so I’m afraid I’m gonna go back to non-human primates with this example with baboons, but you’re absolutely right. So the finding that you’re talking about is from something with humans called the Whitehall II study and Sir Professor… He’s got both titles, Sir and Professor Michael Marmot is the guy who authored the study, one of my colleagues at University College London, and what he basically found is that if you control for a lot of confounding variables, the actual data shows that being in a position of status that comes with stress but no control is really bad for you, being low on the hierarchy without status and without control is even worse for you, but it’s actually pretty good for you if you have a position of status, money and control. And control meaning that you can sort of dictate how outcomes are happening in your life, so a super stressed CEO during, like an airline CEO during the pandemic. That sucks. That’s really bad.
Being someone who’s in charge of a startup that’s taken off, that’s really good. And so what you find in the baboon research that I think is really, really instructive, is using this technique called DNA methylation, you can actually measure biological aging separately from the aging that happens with a calendar. So maybe six months have passed, but your body has aged nine months or maybe it’s only aged three months, and what they found is that when you look at baboons that rise through the ranks to become the sort of alpha male, the worst most stressed baboons are at the bottom. Totally what you’d expect. No access to good food. No access to mates. It basically sucks to be the worst baboon.
But as you rise through the ranks, it gets better until you become the alpha male, and then your body is super, super stressed, and the reason for that is because you constantly have a target on your back, so all the other baboons are thinking about usurping you, you sort of always have to worry about a plot against you to be overthrown, and so even though you have your pick of mates and even though you have the prime food, your body is actually aging faster because of all that stress. And so the sort of takeaway, the way I put it is, it’s good to be in the court, but maybe not good to be the king, and I think that’s a lesson for all of us that actually it’s different from what we expect. It’s always sort of, you always wanna be the alpha, you always wanna be on top, and the science seems to suggest actually that being close to power, but not dealing with the stress of it might be the optimal thing for our bodies.
Brett McKay: Right. That stress and that paranoia, you see that with that janitor guy, he started putting bombs on people’s cars, ’cause he’s worried that people were going after him. So that’s another downside of being in position of power, it might cause you to lash out and do just terrible things because you wanna maintain your power.
Brian Klaas: Yeah, that’s one of the classic traps that these people fall into, they become so power obsessed that they end up destroying themselves. And I think this is something where we’ve all seen this play out in, whether it’s celebrity culture or politics or sports, whatever it is, where someone sort of just thinks that they get high on their own supply, basically, they start to believe the lies that they tell themselves about how great they are, and when people cross them, they really lash out and undermine their own position. So this is one of those things too, where it’s sort of a red flag when someone views power as an end, to my mind, power is a means, it’s something that can help you accomplish certain goals, it can help you change the world in some way, and the people who view power as the ultimate aim are the exact wrong people to be in power, and at any time that somebody is behaving that way, that’s a major red flag that they need to be removed from that position. [chuckle]
Brett McKay: Okay, so we’ve talked about… Again, we reiterate, we talked about the selection bias that comes with power, how power can corrupt us, can make us wanna break the rules, abstract people below us, de-personalized individuals, but let’s talk to this idea of the system that you find yourself in can actually cause people to be corrupted, it’s not the power itself, it’s just that the way the power is manifested and organized… What does your research say about that?
Brian Klaas: Yeah. So the sort of takeaway, the big takeaway is that rotten systems track rotten people and good systems attract good people, and the evidence, I’ll point to two studies briefly that I think are just… They’re two the most fascinating pieces of research I came across in writing the book. The first one is about the sort of self-selection effect based on the system. So these economists ask these students to roll dice and they say, “Roll a dice 42 times and write down what your score is each time, but every time that you roll a six, we’re gonna give you some cash. Now you’re gonna write down your scores, we’re not gonna check, we’re not gonna watch you do it so you can lie, but we’re gonna do statistical analysis to figure out who lied and who didn’t.” So one student in India, kudos to him for brazenness, he put down 42 6’s in a row trying to get 42 times the cash.
It was pretty easy to spot that he’d lied, but there were different levels of dishonesty in these groups. What was fascinating though, is that because they could figure out using statistical methods, who was likely to have lied and who wasn’t, they then asked the students, “What do you want to do with your careers?” And in India, a place where being a civil servant, being the local cop or the local bureaucrat means you can extract bribes from people. In India, the people who lied about their dice rolls to make more money, were disproportionately keen on becoming civil servants. When they did the exact same study in Denmark, the result was flipped. The people who lied about their dice rolls did not want to go into civil service, and the people who were scrupulously honest did.
And so it’s this classic sort of story of if you have a clean system, people who are more willing to behave in clean uncorrupt ways are going to go for that system. Now, the other study that I think really beautifully illustrates this point, is about United Nations parking tickets, and I know it sounds like a weird realm to explore, but it’s sort of a natural experiment where before 2002, anybody who parked illegally in New York who was a diplomat, had diplomatic immunity and therefore didn’t have to pay their fine, so these diplomats racked up 150,000, believe it or not, parking tickets to the tune of $18 million. And finally, in 2002, the mayor of the time, Mike Bloomberg says, “Enough is enough. This is crazy.” Not only are you annoying because you’re parking illegally all the time, but it’s also a revenue source releasing.
So we can’t force you to pay it, but we can take away your cars, we can impound your cars if you keep doing this. And all of a sudden there’s enforcement, there’s accountability. So what happens? Well, in the pre-enforcement period where they can get away with everything, there’s a cultural explanation for illegal parking, so the people who are from Norway, Japan, Germany, these non-corrupt countries, they don’t really park illegally very much, and the people who are from the corrupt countries, Yemen, Egypt, etcetera, are like parking extremely illegally all the time, like the average number of parking tickets per diplomat in the worst country was I think 190 parking tickets per diplomat. Really, really excessive.
And overnight, when the enforcement kicks in, they basically all become Norway, everybody starts parking legally, and the kicker though, is that the longer the Norwegians and Germans and Japanese diplomats were in New York in the pre-enforcement period, the longer they could get away with it, the more they started to park like the Yemenis and the Egyptians. So the lesson is that cultures of corruption are obviously important in dictating behavior, but accountability is also super, super important in deterring bad behavior, once you have a culture of corruption. And so it’s a mix of the two, you need to attract good people into positions of power, you need to clean up the system to attract better people, and then within that good system, you need to really crack down on the people who behave in corrupt or abusive ways to weed them out. And it’s not…
Again, it’s not rocket science, but most of our systems aren’t designed with this end goal, with this in mind, there’s not a systematic attempt to think very carefully about both recruitment and accountability, and I think if every organization just did sort of an assessment of these aspects, the world will become a much better place quite quickly because as I say, the interventions are not difficult, they just involve serious thought about designing systems to attract and promote better people and to weed out those who are breaking the rules.
Brett McKay: Well, let’s say someone’s listening to this and they’re put in a position of power or authority. Rather it’s at work or homeowner’s association, individually, any insights from your research for that person to be like, “I don’t wanna become a crazy homeowner’s association president or megalomaniac. What can I do to prevent that from happening?” What sort of, I guess, breaks can you put on yourself so that doesn’t happen to you?
Brian Klaas:Yeah, it’s a great question. So first off, I’d say that if you’re one of these good people that’s sort of driven by service, these corrosive effects of power are less likely to be as much of a problem, you’ve already solved half the problem because you’re not a power-hungry megalomaniac, narcissistic psychopath, so that’s half of it, right? The other half, though, is that all of us will succumb to some of the psychological effects of power no matter what. Even the best of us. There’s pretty strong evidence that this does something to you over time, and the best of us can counteract it, but it’s not always a sort of bulletproof thing. So what do you do?
There’s a few things, one is that you need to engineer systems in which you are constantly reminded of the weight of your responsibility. So if you’re dealing with difficult decisions that result in harm for people, if you have to fire people, if you have to make decisions that make people really unhappy or hurt people, you should be well aware of the cost of those decisions. I’m not gonna go into the whole detail of it here, but I briefly talk about this in the book with a guy who was involved in doling out money for the 9/11 victims compensation fund, he went through the excruciating process of meeting with every victim’s family face-to-face when he was trying to decide how much their life was worth financially because he wanted to agonize over it.
He said, “The second that this becomes abstract to me is the second I need to get out of this job, because it has to be a reminder of how important this work is,” and I think that’s true even in the smaller stages of power, you need to be reminded of the effects of your decisions when you are affecting other people’s lives. So that’s part of it. The other is just around systems of power is engaging in a sort of Team of Rivals approach. The Team of Rivals is a term that refers to the way Abraham Lincoln set up his cabinet, where he basically made people who were his rivals, they were genuinely sometimes adversaries of his, debate major subjects in front of him, so that he can make an informed decision, and they would tell him when he was being a moron, and he would encourage this basically because he thought it would cut them down to size, remind him of different viewpoints, etcetera.
You contrast this with the Vladimir Putin approach to leadership of the current age, and you’re surrounded by yes men, and in fact, people who cross you might go to jail or might end up dead, and you can think about, what does that do to you? It’s something where if you proactively try to ensure that you are checked, you’re more likely to behave in a reasonable manner, if you behave in a way where you think, “I am powerful and therefore people should defer to me,” you’re more likely to mis-calculate and abuse people because you never get differing opinions. So some of this is possible to sort of proactively mitigate, but I will say that most of the psychologists who study power argue that all of us would succumb at least to some extent, to some of the corrosive aspects of power, if we were there long enough, which is why you might wanna rotate people around and indeed not have everybody inhabit a position of immense power for decades and decades.
Brett McKay: Well, Brian, this has been a great conversation. Where can people go to learn more about the book and your work?
Brian Klaas: Yeah, thank you. It’s been great talking to you. So Corruptible: Who Gets Power and How It Changes Us, is the book and anywhere that you can buy books, if you’ve got a local bookshop, by all means, go there. I tweet pretty regularly. It’s just my name, BrianKlaas, and if people are interested, I also have a podcast called Power Corrupts, which is a podcast about all the sort of dark sides of humans and the way we screw up the world and what we can do about it.
Brett McKay: Well, fantastic. Brian Klaas, thanks for your time. It’s been a pleasure.
Brian Klaas: Thank you.
Brett McKay: My guest was Brian Klaas, he’s the author of the book Corruptible, it’s available on amazon.com and book stores everywhere. You can find more information about his work at his website, brianpklaas.com, that’s K-L-A-A-S, two A’s there. Also check in our show notes, at aom.is/powercorrupts where you can find links to resources where we delve deeper into this topic.
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