I began this series of blogs by, in effect, posing the question whether the saying, power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely, can be explained from a behavioural science or psychology point of view. I believe it can and the answer lies in understanding why we behave as we do. I explored some of the reasons why we behave as we do in the first blog of this series of blogs, describing the ‘loop’ we follow when we act on a ‘trigger for action’ (below).

I also explained that most of our actions short-circuit this loop because they have been ‘automated’, or they are not within our control, or the consequences are too distant for us to give them much thought.

In the second blog of the series, I explained that there are additional things that determine our behaviour: our capabilities for ‘symbolism’, ‘vicarious learning’, ‘forethought’ and ‘self-reflection’, and also ‘self-efficacy’ and ‘agency’.

In this blog I writw about a fifth capability, which is to regulate our own behaviour. When we use our self-regulatory capability, we examine the consequences of our actions against our self standards and by taking notice of how others react to our behaviour (called feedback). Notice that This is what is described in the behavioural loop diagram.

Developing self-standards

We develop our self-standards throughout our lives, absorbing them from significant others in our lives, our culture, our religion and our own goals. Standards are, in effect, INTERNAL CONTROLS. They are the ‘markers’ that help us to judge whether we are reaching our life goals; examples of such goals might be: “I want to be a good person”, or “I want to be a great football player”, or “I want to be an effective doctor (or policeman or lawyer or mother – insert whatever profession you want)”. Of course, we all have several goals at once. Some of our goals may be quite well thought out; for example, a goal like: “I want to be a great football player” is likely to be better thought out than a goal imposed upon us by our cultural tradition, such as what it means to be a ‘good person’. Sometimes, the standards underpinning the goals clash, forcing us to juggle the standards and decide which one(s) is(are) the most important in the circumstances. An example of this is when we face the question:  “Should I lie about this situation so that I don’t hurt the person’s feelings?” Generally, we have some sort of priority ordering of our goals, though most often we don’t do such priority ordering consciously. It is the ‘juggling’ of self-standards and ordering of life goals that I want to talk about most in this third blog of the series.

The use of disengagement tactics

When we use our capability for self-regulation; that is, our capability to monitor and adjust our own behaviour, we engage our emotions. When we feel good about the consequences of a behaviour – that is we are satisfied that we are behaving according to our self-standards and the feedback is good – we tend to repeat it. When we feel bad about a behaviour, we have the option to either say to ourselves: “I’m not going to do that again!” or “Maybe I need to change the way I think about this situation”. If we choose the first option, we are likely not changing the priority ordering of our goals, but if we choose the second option, we are considering re-ordering the priority.

Throughout our lives, we learn some pretty powerful ways of engaging and disengaging from standards. Of course, it is necessary for us to consider which standards should be engaged in which circumstances, but when we do this without thinking about why we are doing it and what the consequences are to our goals, we are leaving ourselves wide open to corruption.

I’ve summarised the ways through which we disengage from internal controls (self-standards) in the diagram (adapted from Bandura’s illustration in his book) in the following diagram – I explain what I mean by the diagram in the rest of this blog.

The first types of disengagement tactics have to do with the way we evaluate the action itself:

 

  • We can say that we acted in a certain way to achieve moral ends. Such moral principles come from a variety of sources, our culture, our religion, our political ideologies etc. We can call on moral principles, such as ‘justice’, ‘equity’, ‘fair play’, ‘independence’ and so on, to justify unspeakable brutalities, including genocide and torture, but also less weighty actions; for example, a school principal chastising a child for misbehaviour caused by the incompetence of a teacher may justify his action on the basis that the overriding principle (standard) to be upheld is ‘good behaviour’ by children regardless of cause for apparent bad behaviour.
  • We might also reconstruct the action by comparing it to a worse outcome (palliative comparison). For example, a thief who stole twenty dollars may compare his actions against those of a lawyer who pocketed the proceeds of Trust Funds worth many thousands of dollars; and a person throwing rubbish onto the ground may dismiss the action by pointing out that a coal mine nearby produces a much greater impact of pollution.
  • We could also change the language we describe the action by (euphemistic language); we could say “strategic misrepresentation” rather than “lying”, or “collateral damage” rather than “killing innocent people”.

 

Moral justifications, euphemistic labelling and advantageous comparisons are the most powerful ways of disengagement tactics a person can use. They allow us to turn what is otherwise morally unacceptable behaviour into something that we can be proud about and, therefore, in the self-regulatory process, we can evaluate the action as satisfactory, worthy of self-reward and to be replicated in future.

 

A second type of disengagement tactic we can use is to fudge who is actually responsible for the outcomes of an action. We can do this by either displacing the responsibility (e.g., “I was forced to do it” or “there is no way I could have foreseen the consequences”) or diffusing responsibility (e.g., “It was the committee’s decision”). A third type of disengagement tactic is when we disregard or misrepresent the injurious consequences of our actions. That is, we can easily remember information about the benefits of the action but not the disbenefits, or we minimise, ignore or disbelieve the disbenefits. For example, a cigarette smoker might deny that she can cause harm to others as a result of the smoke she exhales by pointing out that passive smokers she has known have not become afflicted by predicted illnesses. She may be less able to recall those passive smokers who have become ill, or she may claim that an illness was caused by something else rather than cigarette smoke. By using such disengagement tactics, the cigarette smoker can believe that she is not causing harm and, therefore, there is no need to change her behaviour. When we use this type of disengagement tactic, we effectively disregard or discredit feedback we receive about our actions

 

In the fourth type of disengagement tactic, we focus on the victim of our action: we can either blame them for hurts they suffered as a result of our actions and/or we can dehumanise them.

 

  • By dehumanising victims, we can override the difficulty we might otherwise have when we mistreat others. Social organisations, such as bureaucratisation, automation, urbanisation and high geographical mobility are conditions under which many people remain strangers. We can easily use this form of disengagement mechanism in these situations. For example, in a multinational organisation which employs large numbers of people, each person may be represented by a box on an organisation chart. A manager making organisational decisions about how people should be deployed may do so by thinking of how the boxes should be arranged according to, say, economic principles rather than thinking of the psychological and physical needs of the people represented by the boxes. The manager, therefore, may not think that his actions are contrary to standards of empathy for others that he may have.
  • Another way of dehumanising victims of actions is to claim that they lack human qualities. There are examples throughout history (e.g., treatment of slaves, refugees, Jews and Gypsies in Nazi Germany) and, indeed, today, that glaringly highlight we are capable of believing that those we consider ‘subhuman’ are lacking sensitivities and can only be influenced by severe methods.
  • On the converse, humanising a victim is a powerful way of counteracting injurious conduct. For example, it’s well known that most abductors find it difficult to harm their hostages after they have gotten to know them personally.
  • As well as various dehumanising tactics, we can also just plain blame the victim for causing the hurt they suffered. We can do this by picking a point in a disagreement where the other person did something hurtful to us. For example, a policeman who bashed a teenager may say that the verbal and physical assault he received from the teenager provoked the bashing. In doing so, the policeman, in this example, ignores that he called the teenager an insulting name in the first place. By judiciously picking the point to explain his rough behaviour, the policeman is able to justify his behaviour in terms of compelling circumstances. By fixing blame on others or on circumstances, not only do people excuse their own injurious actions, they can also feel self-righteous in the process.

So there you have it. We have lots of ways to justify how to juggle our standards – and feel good about our decisions to prioritise some over others. We can use these disengagement mechanisms singly or in combination.

As an aside: I ran an experiment in which I asked a group of managers to role play that they were on the board of a pharmaceutical company that had to decide whether or not to take a drug the company produced off the market. Experts had told the company that the drug was potentially lethal, causing unnecessary deaths each year. The drug earnt the company a lot of money. Here is a quote from one of the ‘managers’ when justifying her decision to continue selling the drug (the disengagement tactic used are in (italics)):

“There is no solid evidence proving the drug has detrimental side effects. The adverse effects are just a rough estimate by experts (misrepresenting consequences). There is no social pressure to stop selling the drug (displacing responsibility). Furthermore, usage of this drug is under the prescription of an independent doctor (displacing responsibility). The Board’s primary responsibility is to stockholders and we have no right to withdraw a drug from the market which is obviously in demand (redefine conduct). Since customers have free choice and advice from professional doctors, the company has already fulfilled its social responsibility (blaming the victim). The AMA’s statistical estimate of 14-22 excess deaths per year is minuscule in relation to the number of prescriptions written (misrepresenting consequences).”

There have been quite a number of studies on the use of disengagement tactics. Unsurprisingly, the findings from these studies are that when people have weak pro-social standards and disengage from them, they are more prone to engage in punitive behaviour: they are more likely to be quick to anger and have little self-restraint. In 1993, Karoly, a behavioural science researcher, claimed that use of disengagement mechanisms are a “self-imposed moratorium on self-knowledge expansion, skills-building and, ultimately, goal attainment”. As I already stated above, the use of disengagement tactics could pave a path towards corruption. In the next blog (the fourth in this blog series), I’ll pick out the lessons from parts 1, 2, and 3 of this blog series that explains how people become corrupted and, more importantly, I’ll suggest ways of how we might direct our own behaviour as well as influence the behaviour of others to avoid corruption.

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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,

Pedro

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
ChithraChancellor
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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