In previous blogs of this series of blogs, I explained that why we behave as we do has a number of layers of explanations. In particular, my aim in the previous blogs was to lay the foundations for an answer to the question why there might be truth in the saying: power tends to corrupt, absolute power corrupts absolutely.
People may behave in an apparently ‘corrupt’ or ‘anti-social’ way but the behaviour might not really be because they are in themselves ‘anti-social’; for example, it may be that:
- They are simply not observing their behaviour (automated behaviour), and/or
- They are not in charge of their behaviour (maybe because of low self-efficacy and/or because of the influence of proxy models, or because they are forced into certain behaviours, or, within their circumstances, their behaviour is acceptable), and/or
- They have compromised capabilities (perhaps they have no experience or education regarding the circumstance in which they needed to act, or they have compromised or undeveloped thinking (cognitive) capabilities).
(I explain all of this in my previous blogs)
When any of the above explain the behaviour, I don’t think a person will progressively become more corrupt.
When we use disengagement tactics (see blog 3), however, we can become corrupted. Putting the use of disengagement tactics together with lack of feedback from significant others, which is often the case when a person holds power, is a strong recipe for laying a slippery path towards corruption.
The slippery path to corruption
Imagine this scenario (building on from a previous example I gave):
A policeman sees a teenager sporting tattoos and dishevelled hair walking along the side of a road. The teenager flicks the policeman a look that the policeman interprets as disrespectful. The policeman stops the teenager and frisks her, with the excuse that the youth might be carrying drugs. There are no drugs but the policeman suspects the youth has used drugs.
Faced by the aggressive behaviour of the policeman, the youth behaves in a more respectful way and the incident is over. The policeman is satisfied that the teenager has been taught ‘respect’ and he glosses over the fact that he has used an ‘unjustified’ aggressive way of achieving the outcome. His partner, who witnessed the frisking, laughs approvingly as they discuss the incident with a: “You sure taught her a thing or two!”. The policeman uses the same methods next time he sees a youth he believes is ‘disrespectful’. This time he does find drugs and he claims further moral justification for his behaviour. Over the course of some time, he elaborates his behaviour to include ‘roughing up’ suspects to get them to ‘confess’ to misdemeanours because (he argues to himself) “That’s the only way to treat these low-life miscreants!”
If you think that people of apparent good character would not stoop to use disengagement tactics that hurt others, let me tell you a bit more about my study:
I told a group of managers a story about a situation in which executives of a company had to make a decision about taking a potentially dangerous meal preparation off the market (you may recall that in the previous study I spoke of in the third blog in this series, that there was a parallel situation but it involved a drug). I told the managers that the executives had decided to leave the meal preparation on the market and I gave a list of reasons, including the profits the preparation earnt. I then asked the managers to tell me what they thought of the executives’ decision. Almost everyone said that the managers had behaved in an anti-social way. I kept an note of those who felt strongly that the executives behaved wrongly and those who did not.
Six months later (when I thought the executives were likely to have forgotten the details of the dangerous meal preparation story) I gave them a role play, putting them into the position of deciding whether or not to take the dangerous drug off the market (see the third blog of this series). I found that those who had high social standards either said “take the drug off the market” or, if they decided to leave the drug on the market, they justified their behaviour in ways such as the example I gave in the third blog.
In the case of the policeman example above, there are a few factors at play that make the policeman especially vulnerable to corruption. Importantly, there is a power imbalance between the policeman and the teenager (and, later, others) he mistreats. Generally, those in a less powerful position will not complain – or, if they do, their complaints are not likely to be taken notice of – so the policeman has no feedback to tell him that the justification tactics he uses are unacceptable. In addition, the policeman’s partner supported his behaviour. And, further, there were no other witnesses to the incident who might confront the policeman about his behaviour.
These three conditions of power are likely to be those that are fairly typical of the position of powerful leaders and, indeed, many professionals, such as lawyers, physicians and even managers (who see clients on a one-to-one basis). ‘Powerful’ people may not be told that something about their actions has caused problems. The people who come into contact with professionals usually do so when they are in a vulnerable position and are, often, uncertain of their rights and don’t know who to complain to if they feel unhappy about their treatment; in other words, they have limited power.
The policeman had other reasons to continue feeling good about his actions: he got the respect that he believed he had a right to, and he got the results that he as a ‘good’ policeman was expected to get, including the occasional drug bust and, probably – as he roughed up more miscreants – more results ending in solutions to crimes.
He may well be surprised when, at some stage, he finds himself censured for his behaviour. There are many stories of people who are surprised at suddenly finding themselves criticised when they believed they were behaving quite within social standards. Dare I say there are a number of film producers, priests, politicians and other significant public figures in the current daily news who are protesting their innocence to charges of wrong-doing and who really believe they have done no wrong.
Diverging from the slippery path
I believe that no one is exempt from becoming corrupted – including ourselves. In the Si’Empra series, I slipped a number of otherwise good people into supporting corrupt behaviour when, in themselves, they were good people. Although the Si’Empra series is fiction, it’s not hard to find examples throughout history – the Nuremberg trials after WWII provide many examples of people who believed they were doing the right thing – Joseph Mengele who oversaw the experiments on people being one. Arguably, Mao Tse Tung also became corrupt as he became more entrenched in his power base, moving from a benevolent leader with the desire to improve the lot of the rural poor to setting the conditions in which literally millions of the rural poor starved to death. Kings, queens, private sector moguls, presidents etc., history is littered with examples – Shakespeare (and many other authors) loved to write stories about the corruption process
Perhaps one of the best ways to keep ourselves from becoming corrupted is to carefully think through our goals in life and to understand their priorities. In this way, when a situation arises that we don’t feel good about, we are in a better position to judge whether the disengagement tactics that we might use are justifiable. Another way to stop ourselves from becoming corrupt is to listen to feedback from others – not only significant others, but anyone who might give us feedback; not immediately discounting that which comes from non-significant others.
If you are in a position of influencing others, such as if you are in a managerial position, you can set up systems that will help those you manage to stop from behaving in corrupt ways. The standard way most companies and government departments use to try to stop corrupt behaviour is to put in rules, such as not accepting gifts, or publishing a code of conduct. Neither of these by themselves effectively influence the factors that I’ve explained in this series of blogs. In the following table, I summarise the things that might encourage corrupt behaviour (left-hand column) and what can be done to stop corruption from occurring.
|Cause of anti-social|
|Predicted effects||The system that should|
be put in place
|The predicted outcomes|
from the system
|The behaviour is used and/or|
promoted by peers and proxy
|The person becomes|
uncertain about the
and the situation is
ripe for disengagement
tactics to be used.
|Remove proxy models that|
advocate the anti-social
behaviour and replace with
ones that do.
|Socialisation and pro-social|
modelling by peers helps to
establish standards that help
the self-regulatory process.
|Loyalty to others in the peer|
group above all others,
|Feedback from those not in|
the peer group are discounted
and excuses that
complainants are less
deserving are increasingly
|Establish ongoing education|
programs about appropriate
standards and behaviours to
observe. Also establish
frequent contact with clients
in non-power conditions to
‘humanise’ clients. Provide
incentives for observance of
|Highlights behaviours that|
should be observed and how
they should be evaluated.
Provides feedback that may
|The organisation ignores or|
does not punish anti-social
|Anti-social justifications for|
behaviour continue to be
used and are internally re
consistently identified and
|Highlights and clarifies|
behaviours that should be
|Peers ignore anti-social|
behaviour of powerholder
|Low level of feedback about|
acceptability of behaviour.
|Empower clients and set up|
an external monitoring
system that provides
|Provides accurate feedback.|
|Imbalance of power between|
power holder and client
|There is a low level of|
feedback and the feedback
may be distorted.
|Empower clients through an|
external regulatory system.
|Provides accurate feedback.|
Overall, the things needed to ensure that people in an organisation – especially in organisations made up of those who are in positions of power vis a vis their clients – are:
- A clear set of standards that are well-modelled by proxy models
- Appropriate training on the meaning of those standards and how to think about them
- A set of feedback mechanisms that re-enforce the standards, such as:
- public rewards for following the standards
- public punishment for not following the standards
- A system where ‘the powerful’ come into contact with their clients in situation where the client is not vulnerable
- A system where dissatisfied clients can raise complaints without fear that they will be ignored or otherwise harmed
When such a system is put in place, it directly intervenes in a person’s self-regulatory system and helps a person to self-regulate in pro-social ways.
Unfortunately, this type of system is often lacking for those in positions of ‘absolute power’, which goes a long way towards explaining why absolute power corrupts absolutely.
Some readers have given me feedback that Ellen in the Si’Empra series is an unbelievable ‘goodie’. Actually, her circumstances have done that – exactly as might be predicted by what I’ve been explaining about the self-regulatory model:
- She has well-developed capabilities.
- Because of the rejection of her by those who might be her peers (and because she has Rosa, which gives her the freedom to move around Si’Empra), she meets many people on Si’Empra and is, thus, not limited to feedback from her peers.
- She comes into association with people like Greçia, Müther and Elthán, who become her proxy models.