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February 10, 2008


Thanks to lurking gnome for pointing out this useful Washington Post article. It's about academic research into how power makes you stupid:

[N]ew research in political science and psychology has provided a novel explanation for why leaders and managers regularly let their followers down and resort to the kind of "layoffs and pay cuts are good for you" talk that defines absurdity. These studies show that leaders often emerge from communities not because they are ruthless, but because they are skilled at managing social relationships.

Something happens to people once they acquire power, however, and the transformation appears to be psychological...[V]olunteers made to feel powerful, even in a trivial laboratory experiment, almost instantly lose the ability to see things from other people's points of view...

[P]ower exacerbates many cognitive biases. People who lack power turn out to be more accurate in guessing the opinions of those around them, whereas those in power tend to be inaccurate. Because subordinates are also hesitant to tell superiors things they do not want to hear, the problem gets worse, with powerful people having even less input and perspective about how others think and feel...

Not having power forces you to see things from other people's points of view and increases empathy and social behavior. Having power allows you to ignore other points of view -- depriving you of the social skills that led to power in the first place. When powerful people such as Musharraf say and do things that are absurd, in other words, it could be that they are simply unaware of how they appear to others.

We're talking to you, Saddam Hussein:

The growth of a culture of lying to superiors hurt policymaking...Lying to superiors was driven by fear of the Regime and the inability to achieve results as resources deteriorated under sanctions in the first half of the 1990s. Lack of structural checks and balances allowed false information to affect Iraqi decision making with disastrous effects. Saddam knew his subordinates had a tendency to lie, but his earlier efforts to check their claims by “ground-truthing” them through personal tours of inspection decreased by 1998 as he became more reclusive.

And yet, as incredibly stupid as Saddam was, he was nowhere near as stupid as the people who run America. That's because Saddam had to deal with a power greater than himself—the United States—while the elite of the U.S. does not.

Here's a Saddam speech from June, 2000. Except for the part about the "advocates of Satan," it's a far more accurate description of US policy in the mideast than anything you'd ever read in the US media:

Why did Iraq have to face all the things that it faced? The answer: Because the enemies of humanity, people, and God, and the advocates of Satan, understood that Iraq regained its free will and that it can go as far as it wants and as allowed by God Almighty. Therefore, they imposed what they did against us. When we used to say this at the early stages, some people, including some sincere Iraqi nationalists, were saying that we may be exaggerating when we say that they were lying in wait to act against us, regardless of all the excuses they fabricated. But after the embargo and the fighting that lasted 10 years, this became clear. They used to say that the UN Security Council was deciding. But in fact, the UN Security Council became a cover for the United States that it uses when it wants to conceal its unilateral will. When it wants to act unilaterally, it will act unilaterally...

We made this argument in February 1990 during the Amman summit. We analyzed the situation then and said the United States will fabricate certain cases now that it thinks it reached the summit. We said the first target will be the Arabs, and the first among the Arabs will be those in our region, the Arabian Gulf region, because there is more oil here than any other place. We said that then, and some people were surprised by what they read then.

AND: Four People Made Stupid By Power

—Jonathan Schwarz

Posted at February 10, 2008 05:20 PM

MAYBE THEY were just stupid to begin with. Perhaps WE should be looking closer at whom WE elect into office.

Posted by: Mike Meyer at February 10, 2008 10:09 PM

I think Americans are electing people to office who are like them...... which is why it is getting harder and harder for me to vote for anyone - none of them are like me.

Posted by: Susan - NC at February 10, 2008 11:45 PM

Yes. But on the other hand, people should vote for plans, not for people. Land of laws, not of men.

As for the idea that maybe they were all stupid to begin with, i trust scientists too much to believe they would not have realized that prior to the experiment.

Posted by: littlehorn at February 10, 2008 11:49 PM

I don't know that the bit about 'advocates for Satan' is really that far off the mark....

Posted by: Mike at February 11, 2008 01:57 AM

Finally--psychology catches up with Nietzsche, who had this to say about Bismarck's Germany in *Twilight of the Idols*: "Macht macht Dumm," or, "power makes stupid."

Posted by: Dave Koukal at February 11, 2008 05:02 AM

"[V]olunteers made to feel powerful, even in a trivial laboratory experiment, almost instantly lose the ability to see things from other people's points of view..."

There, in a nutshell, you have the argument for anarchism.

Posted by: Dave Trowbridge at February 11, 2008 01:51 PM

Good. You've figured it out. Now stop obsessing about it. Short of genetic engineering and eugenic breeding, there's no way to fix the problem, because it's intrinsic to humanity.

Posted by: Wareq at February 11, 2008 09:29 PM

It is correctable. The old ways are best. Tie power to responsibility, tie responsibility to punishment, and the problem will fade. The trick is to always take power away from one receiving it. Gaining law enforcement powers? You lose privacy. Getting a government contract? You lose the freedom to transact business with whomever you choose. Back power up with the threat of the gun should it be misused and things will work out.

Posted by: No One of Consequence at February 12, 2008 03:18 PM