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 effectsThe 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
expected outcomes
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,
including clients
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
discount disengagement
The organisation ignores or
does not punish anti-social
Anti-social justifications for
behaviour continue to be
used and are internally re
Anti-social behaviours
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.

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My dearest Pedro,

I hope this note finds you well.

I was in your country scarcely eight months and yet nothing in my life has left such a profound impact. The artistry and music of your people, the way you live your lives on your most forbidding island, and the knowledge that it is also inhabited by unique others, fills my mind constantly.

This note comes to you via a close and trusted friend. I would be most humbly grateful if you would write me a little of the history of Si’Empra. My friend will convey your writings to me. I will not pre-empt your words by asking questions now but hope that you will unfold for me a context into which I can place news from your land.

I promise you that your words will never be read by other than myself, nor will they be repeated by me.

I remain your friend.

Augustine (Fr)

July 2011

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Dear Father Augustine

You are right that it is important for me to guard my words. I will tell you briefly something of Si’Empra’s history and how we have come to our unhappy and deteriorating circumstance.

Our history is complex and must start with ancient songlines that tell of the landing of people on this island. They found the island inhabited by Cryptals – those creatures you have heard rumoured of in your time with us. I know only a little about Cryptals (indeed I doubt anyone knows much about them, they are so other than we are!). Cryptals are able to use scent – perhaps we would characterise such scent as pheromones, though this has never been studied – to manipulate the behaviour of creatures on Si’Empra. We call the scent mylin or Cryptal poison. In general, we talk of mylin as if it has only one characteristic, and that it is highly poisonous; but, in fact, in small doses, it can strengthen Si’Emprans, especially Crystal Makers. I suspect that Cryptals can also produce many forms of mylin.

Cryptals inhabit the deep earth of Si’Empra and travel the underworld through an intricate weave of tunnels. One of the creatures, called the White’One, sings almost constantly. The song appears to coordinate the movement of other Cryptals. There is also talk of a Black’One, but information of this creature is hazy indeed. Remarkable as you may find what I have already told you about the Cryptals, know that they can also manipulate the very earth. You are aware that Si’Empra is on a part of a fault line between Earth’s tectonic plates – I believe it is called the Pacific-Antarctic Ridge. The earth is highly volatile along this line and, perhaps in normal circumstances, the island would not exist at all. However, Cryptals know how to release pressure in rock and the belief of many of us is the island owes its very existence to such Cryptal capacity.

When the first people came to the island there were not only Cryptals but also huge birds, which we call glasaurs. These birds seem to have disappeared soon after the coming of people. I am not sure why, though I suspect that Cryptals created the birds (I think they are mutated versions of a bird that lives beyond the forbidding Barrier Cliffs that are on the very far side of our island) and found no more use for them after people arrived. Recently, another such bird has come among us again – you have heard of this.

Cryptals and the first peoples, over the thousands of years that followed, came to an arrangement. I should tell you also that Cryptals have another feature: they have long and thick fur, which the first people learnt how to weave into cloth. At some stage, the people also discovered that, with sufficient heat and other treatments, they could manipulate the fur to make a sort of glass, which we call crystal. As you will have discerned, this crystal is highly prized – though we have little access to it now. There was something else that the people discovered they could do with the crystal: that is, with further work they could cause the crystal to echo certain sounds. This special crystal is called virigin. But the craft of making virigins is lost.

The first people on Si’Empra we call the Crystal Makers. I believe that at the time of their coming, Si’Empra’s climate was relatively benign but gradually changed to become increasingly hostile and cold. Crystal Makers gradually retreated into the underground world of the Cryptals. It was onto this cold, windswept island that another peoples were shipwrecked. These were my ancestors. Of the origin of these people, I know very little. (As an aside, I think that my ancestors also introduced goats to Si’Empra – though, as you and I have already established, our domesticated chickens are native).

The newcomers were welcomed by the Crystal Makers. Over time, Crystal Makers no longer left their underground dwellings but provided Sky Seekers with cloth and crystal in exchange for food and other aboveground necessities. The homes of Sky Seekers were also kept warm by hot geothermal waters that Cryptals channelled through the flooring – you have seen these structures in Si'Em City though the warming is currently carried out by the use of diesel-fuelled generators.

Sky Seekers and Crystal Makers have different social systems as well as language. Crystal Makers divide their people into guilds. Each guild is headed by a Guild Master. The code by which the Crystal Makers operate is called The Order. It is strictly enforced by the Guild Masters. Sky Seekers, as you have learnt, are governed by a council, called the Lianthem, which is traditionally drawn from a group of ruling families. The head of the Lianthem is our Ülrügh, notionally appointed by the Lianthem. However, it has long been accepted that each Ülrügh chooses one of his or her children to be his or her successor.

You have seen how forbidding our shoreline is and it is, perhaps, why Si’Empra has long been isolated. Nevertheless, a group of seal hunters did land on our island some eight decades ago. This event began a process that fundamentally changed a way of life on Si’Empra that had existed for hundreds of years.

You have remarked on our modernisation achievements. I think I implied, in our conversations, that all Si’Emprans initially did well under the rule of Ülrügh Devi. The Crystal Makers were our allies, providing unique Cryptal cloth and crystal that was much sought-after by foreigners (these things still are!). Such alliance, however, did not last. Crystal Makers do not believe in change and when they perceived that Sky Seekers were changing their lives as a result of association with foreigners, Crystal Makers ceased to provide cloth and crystal. The Lianthem discovered that outsiders were also keen to purchase the gemstones found on this island. With the help of a Chinese family (you have met a member of this family, Cheng Yi), Sky Seekers developed a gemstone business. Unfortunately, mining gemstones did not meet with the approval of Cryptals. The Crystal Makers warned against it and, when the Sky Seekers refused to listen, the Cryptals retaliated by denying Sky Seekers access to the geothermal energy the island has in abundance.

Ülrügh Devi, in spite of his many brilliant insights, was not one to be coerced into a course of action when he had set his mind on another. With confidence that Sky Seekers could continue to fend for themselves without the help of Crystal Makers and Cryptals, he decided to remove our belowground dwellers. Among the Crystal Makers who survived the Ülrügh’s purge, this purge is known as ‘The Destruction’. There were those on the Lianthem who disagreed with Ülrügh Devi. When he turned on them also, they fled. The hunt of Crystal Makers and Cryptals continues even today, the current Ülrügh having set up a special group to do it and with otherwise minimal involvement of others on the Lianthem – though a majority approve or are disinterested.

Ülrügh Devi was succeeded by his son, Briani.

We are now into events that occur in my lifetime.

Ülrügh Briani was much manipulated by some on the Lianthem who profited greatly from modernisation. Ülrügh Devi’s leap of faith that Sky Seekers could manage on Si’Empra without the aid of Crystal Makers and Cryptals is not working as well as planned. Si’Empra constantly struggles to buy and produce all that is needed – or perhaps the shortages many Si’Empran’s suffer is because some of the ruling families have grown used to a lavish lifestyles and the sharing that used to be part of Sky Seeker tradition has thinned.

Ülrügh Briani married Lian Thea, a twin sister of our current Chancellor, Lian Chithra. She bore the Ülrügh a son – you have met Ülrügh Redel. Rumour has it that Lian Thea was unkind to her child. She died when he was but a young boy – perhaps four or five. After fourteen or fifteen years, the Ülrügh took a new wife. A very young bride, only a few years older than the Ülrügh’s son. Nevertheless, there seemed to be real love between Constance – the bride’s name – and Ülrügh Briani. Constance gave birth to Ellen, who became much beloved by her father and many Si’Emprans and all indications were that Ülrügh Devi intended her to be his successor. The Ülrügh’s unexpected death, however, saw Redel become Ülrügh.

Forgive me. What followed after Ülrügh Briani’s death is extremely painful to me. While I have entrusted to you the above version of Si’Empra’s history (not one that is safe to discuss nowadays), I find myself unable to continue. Suffice to say that our new Ülrügh abused his sister but denied the abuse – and Ellen has never confirmed or denied. In an effort to safeguard her daughter, Constance, agreed to become his wife. She bore him a daughter, who is called Chrystal – you have met the child. Constance died soon after childbirth.

Perhaps you understand Si’Empra better now. We have access to the most wonderful things that the outer world can provide – we have Internet access, mobile phones, electric lighting, lifts to save our legs from stairs, access to word class education etc etc. Even cars we have on Si’Empra, (though there are few roads on which to drive them – one to Sinthen and one to the mines, and a minor one up to the Serai). The cars are all but useless but the helicopters potentially more useful – though at present they are put to deadly use. Our access to the ‘wonderful things’ is, however, limited. Indeed, beyond Si’Em City and Baltha, people live in poverty.

I hope you stay well and I look forward to many more years of correspondence with you on philosophical exercises of the mind that need not be burdened by the raw emotion of day-to-day melancholy.

With kind regards,


PS: If I were to tell you a fuller story of how Si’Empra is today, I would begin with an event about two years ago that caused Lian Ellen to flee Si’Em City and not return.


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Glossary of names


Acolyte SythelAcolyte of the Guild of Weaving who helped Sami and Tharnie
adjutantRedel's special guard
AnnePartner of Lian Dane
AuchustGuild Master of Construction: short hair in spikes on his head
BacharWeb Cleaner child with good voice
BrianiGrandfather of Ellen
ChrisWeb Cleaner/harvester/looks after Muther over summer
Cillapregnant Crystal Maker
ConstanceEllen's mother
Cryptalscreatures of the deep
DeviRedel's father
DevoutsRedel's priest aids
Dr Thomas DohertySurgeon that Lian Shivay communicates with to help Ellen
Dr ThrakeOrthopaedic surgeon
EllenDaughter of Briani and Constance
ElthanEllen's grandmother
Ethanson of Sathun
FrancisA huge muscled black man from South Africa
GreciaDoctor at Sinthen and Pedro's old home
GrettaLives beyond the Barrier Cliffs
Heiniepartner of Thyrol
Ian SewellOne of Norm Tucker's crew
Jessorphan girl Sathun found and now wife of José
JoeOne of Norm Tucker's crew: a tall thin man
JonAdministrative aid to Chithra
JoosthinCrystal Guild Master
Joseeldest son of Sathun
JosieWeb Cleaner child with the burnt face
KatherinaEllen's devoted carer
LaraAcolyte in Guild of weaving
Lian AchtonMusic teacher
Lian CecilTax Collector
Lian DaneOwner of most of the hothouses, clear blue eyes, balding pate, and trim fram
Lian DiánnéIn charge of the stores
Lian IsoldeAchton's wife
Lian JulianHas much real estate, arthritis, nephew to Devi, cheerful
Lian PethriePhysician
Lian ShivayDoctor at Baltha hospital
Lian SienneOne of the coup leaders
Lian TheonOne of the coup leaders and father of Thull
Lian ThessaTakes over Marthin's role
Lian ThobiasChief Engineer
LumanA favourite grandson of Lian Julian and good at Chatham
MarthinHusband of Mary
Marypartner of Marthin
MutherSi'Empra Mayal -living with Grecia
PedroElthan's partner, Ellen's grandfather
Phanlives with Grecia
Phietnurse helping Greçia
Rangera section of the adjutants who are involved with the hunt
Redelbrother of Ellen and Ulrugh
Richardson of Muther
Rosaa glasaur - a very large bird, one of a kind, that Ellen rides
SamiAcolyte of Tharnie - who is on crutches
SaraGuild Master of Weaving: small woman, chews her nails, youngest member
SaraGuild Master of Weaving
SathunThe son of Sienne the rebel
SiraAccompanied Thanin to meet Ellen
ThaliaThe child in Fadil Village that Redel murdered
ThamNurse helping Greçia
ThaninGuild Master of Design
TharylWeb Cleaner in charge of one of the food storage areas
The Black OneLarge, dark brown eyes
The Othersthose living beyond the Barrier Cliffs
The OvercomeThose addicted beyond reason to mylin
TheresaSathun's oldest daughter
ThilAcolyte of the Guild of Memory and Gate Master of Illiath
ThimonWeb Cleaner/harvester/Elthan's harvester deputy
ThomaliasDaughter of Thom - the girl in Fadil Village
ThrenFriend of Joosthin now become part of the Overcome
ThrevorGuild Master of Memory: one of the guilds of the Crystal Makers; old, stooped and the most powerful
ThrevorGuild Master of Memory slim male of middle age with pale yellow braided hair
ThullSathun's father, recently deceased
Thyrolpartner of Heinie
White'OneSinging Cryptal
WhypoonMaster who taught Elthan how to clean webs
ZaraAcolyte of Joosthin

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Glossary of words


Brimaldplants on the Chess River ravine
Hawkberry plantplants on the walk: A minty smell with a touch of rose
Jalineplants on the Chess River ravine
Lalloonsleek beast, the size of a small dog. It was a lalloon; a pretty creature with rounded, furry ears, a narrow snout tipped by a black nose and long, soft, reddish-brown fur that was prized by Sky Seekers for lining the hoods of winter coats. The creature was a hunter and scavenger, sneaky, adept at hiding and solitary.
LayamleSi'Em City's vast, communal chamber,
Lianequivalent to 'Lady'
Lianthemequivalent to the ruling council
Lithilian berriesspecial berries for making a kind of wine
Pendleweedplants on the Chess River ravine
samiraa musical instrument
schathemSi'Empran traditional climbing game
Seraiequivalent to 'palace'
Si'Empra MayalSongbird of Si'Empra
Si'Empra TheolelThe Jewel of Si'Empra
solnishunting animal
Sweensbeeplants on the Chess River ravine
Thordilonesa musical instrument

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Glossary of places


Balthaon the other side of the bridge
Barthgunman accompanying Lian Cecil in Fadil Villae
Charn RiverTo the east of the Sith River
Fadil Villagescene of tax collector incident
GhuyHeadman of Fadil Village
IlliathBelowground Crystmaker city
Northern LandsWhere the summer dwelling is for Richard and Muther
Overshot Gorgeseparates the Si'Em bluff from the rest of the island
River OrbEast of Thuls Refuge which has become easier to cross as a result of the earthquake and the route Ellen advised Richard et al to take
Si'Em Bluffinto which Si'Em City is built
Si'Em Citymain city on the island
Si'Empraname of island
Sinthenlinked to Baltha by a road
Sith ChamberA huge cave used by the harvesters
Sith CliffsThe first barrier above the Sith River on the way to the Northern Lands
Sith RiverTo the west of the Charn River
The Barrier Cliffsseparate the place The Others live from the rest of Si'Empra
The Lost Cityon top of the Barrier Cliffs
The Seraipalace - administration centre
The ShoalsRubbish dump and where Sky Seeker dead are left
TrebiathBelowground Crystmaker city

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