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The pathology of power

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Fernando del Pino Calvo Sotelo

February 27, 2013

“Power tends to corrupt”. This famous sentence written by the Catholic British historian Lord Acton is often quoted but seldom understood. Today, the collective imagination pictures corruption in a very narrow and childish way, restricted to the customary envelope discreetly delivered beneath the table. However, the corrosive effect of power on the human being embraces a much wider concept, has an anthropologic origin and goes beyond what might currently be legal or illegal. That’s why it seems preferable to say that power always tends to destroy the morals and judgment of the individual. This conviction, which is consistent with continuous empirical evidence and Man’s fallen nature, has also been backed in the last decades by a vast array of psychological research on the effects of power on behavior. This huge accumulated knowledge notwithstanding, the psychology of power has not received the publicity it deserves, in spite of the popularity of such a brilliant allegory of power as The Lord of the Rings, written by the author J.R.R. Tolkien (also Catholic, by the way).

I have been introduced to this fascinating realm by the extraordinary work of three psychologists from two American universities, Berkeley and Stanford: Dacher Keltner, whom I met a few years ago, Cameron Anderson and Deborah Gruenfeld. What follows is a sample of the enlightening findings that these authors and others have made on this issue. They put forward the fact that power indeed changes Man. And yes, it changes him for the worse.

What is power? Power is the capability of an individual to improve or worsen the state of others by controlling a system of rewards and punishments to which those other individuals are vulnerable. Through this capability, that is, through providing or withholding resources or administering punishments, the powerful individual is able to impose his will upon others’. Thus, the exercise of power requires a dependency relationship between the majority powerless individuals and the powerful. Power’s apex is total arbitrariness, with the absence of any exogenous rules that could constrain that capacity. In this instance, the powerful imposes his own rules and even changes them continuously, tailoring them to his purposes.

How does power affect behavior? Like in The Sound of Music, let’s start at the very beginning, a very good place to start. Elevated power makes the individual more indifferent to what others might think or feel, losing sensitivity and empathy and coldly showing aloofness in face of the suffering of others. Elevated power also increases the sensitivity to rewards and reduces sensitivity to punishments, out of a growing sense of impunity. As a consequence, the powerful tends to contemplate the people around him as a means to achieve his goals (his rewards), rating them according to their usefulness in helping him satisfy his desires. In his narcissism, he sees others orbiting around him; for instance, he tends to credit others’ successes to his own power, instead of to those others’ efforts. The judgment of the individual sick with the virus of power is also undermined: firstly, individuals with elevated power tend to abuse of stereotypes when judging others, showing less attention to individual information and, therefore, assessing others’ attitudes and positions less accurately; secondly, he is bound to run excessive risks; thirdly, it distorts reality, in particular his self-image as compared to how he is perceived by others, thereby isolating himself. One of the most interesting traits of power is that it lowers inhibitions enormously. In fact, disinhibition is at the very root of power: the individual simply stops controlling himself. “Drunk with power” turns out to be a spot-on description. The individual with elevated power nourishes the fantasy that his behavior will never bring negative consequences upon him. He starts to see himself above moral or social conventions or above the law, in the understanding that what is vetoed to the average person is allowed to him. He starts to naturalize socially inappropriate, more selfish, impulsive and aggressive conducts, such as breaking the most basic rules or politeness (interrupting abruptly, shouting at or humiliating the other person, for instance) or misappropriating economic resources (either illegally as we see these days in the current political corruption cases in Spain or legally, through abusive remuneration, for example). On a curious note, exaggeratedly inhibited sexual behavior seems to be symptomatic of power sickness. The research finds that elevated power in men makes them perceive sexual interest in women’s ambiguous behavior (acting accordingly), including sexual harassment or normalized adultery. In summary, maybe the most unsettling discovery of this whole body of psychological findings is that evidence shows power make people more inclined to act as sociopaths, with behavior resembling that of patients with a damaged orbitofrontal cortex in their brains. In fact, these authors “let the reader draw his or her own parallels between elevated power and psychopathy”.

Yet there are forces that can counteract power’s corrosive potential. Accountability, which fights the feeling of impunity, or the limitation of arbitrariness are both effective external weapons. Within the individual, his set of beliefs and virtue, working as a peculiar immunological system, strengthens his resilience against the pathology of power. In pure logic, those who believe in a set of superior, immutable moral rules or believe in a Superior Authority from whom it is impossible to hide will combat better the onslaught of power’s evil effects. More vaguely, the existence of a code of values in Society also reduces the corruption of power. Unfortunately, today this code does not seem to be in place.

Abraham Lincoln is quoted as saying: “Nearly all men can stand adversity, but if you want to test a man’s character, give him power”. We now know he was too optimistic, as few of us would pass that test with flying colors. From the acceptance of this reality many things start making a lot of sense. The havoc created by power is the nitty-gritty of the huge importance of establishing firm boundaries to political power (as a matter of course, there is an application to the world of business and banking, where power equally corrupts, but that is the subject of another article). Paradoxically, in order to defend people’s freedom from the pathology of power we must limit that same freedom in those who rule us. We must draw the line, and we know how to do it: small government (both in size and regulatory authority); empire of the Law (approaching a system based on few immutable principles and escaping from ever changing, whimsical legislation); strict separation of executive, legislative and judicial branches of power); total, obsessive transparency; checks and balances and accountability (with serious and fast audits and direct representation electoral systems).

Virtually kidnapped by her despotic ruling class, Spain lags behind in this issue. No wonder we are in dire straits.

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