Tuesday, June 14, 2011

A rambling meditation about power

A few posts down I made what I said I expected to be my only comment on Anthony Weiner. That's still true except that it got me thinking about something I've thought about before, a sort of recurring philosophical theme for me: power. Power in this case not in the sense of who has it and who doesn't but in the sense of the psychology of power, how we experience and relate to power from both sides of the powerful-powerless divide.

What really prompted this was the case of Dominique Strauss-Kahn, the now-former head of the IMF who was arrested for sexual assault in New York. In the wake of the arrest, a number of people asked, in one form or another, why does this keep happening? Never mind whether Strauss-Kahn is himself guilty or not, there are more than enough proven cases of powerful people - the vast majority men - physically or sexually exploiting, abusing, even assaulting, those over who they have some authority or who are otherwise perceived to be in a "lesser" position. "Why? Why do they do it?" people asked.

Very frequently, the answer, the simple, bold, cold, answer came back: Because they can. Because they think they can get away with it. Because they think their position will protect them. Because no one ever tells them "no."

Because they can.

It was Lord Acton who said, in it's popular form, "Power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely." Over the years, psychologists have performed literally hundreds of experiments testing the concepts of power and its exercise and overwhelmingly they have come to the same conclusion Lord Acton did: Power corrupts.

Writing in his "Frontal Cortex" column at Wired last summer, Jonah Lehrer noted that
[a]ccording to psychologists, one of the main problems with authority is that it makes us less sympathetic to the concerns and emotions of others. For instance, several studies have found that people in positions of authority are more likely to rely on stereotypes and generalizations when judging other people. They also spend much less time making eye contact, at least when a person without power is talking.
That is, the very experience of having power removes us from connection with others. Put another way, power undermines empathy. It's a state that social psychologist Deborah Gruenfeld calls "disinhibition," which
involves acting on your own desires in a social context without considering the effects of your actions. It implies a heightened sensitivity to your own internal state and also a reduced sensitivity to other’s interests and experiences.
This was illustrated in a series of experiments done two years ago by Joris Lammers (Tilburg University, the Netherlands) and Adam Galinsky (Northwestern University, Illinois).

Without getting too bogged down in procedural details, in the first they divided a group of volunteers in half and "primed" one of those halves to feel more powerful than they normally would and the other to feel less powerful than normal. They then divided each of those groups in half and swapped one of those halves. So now you've got two groups, each of which have half "high-power" and half "low-power" members.

They asked the first group to rate on a scale of 1 to 10 how morally objectionable it would be for others to over-report travel expenses at work - that is, to pad their expense account.

The high-power members thought that was significantly more immoral than the low-power members did. That is, they seemed to be taking the more moral position.

However -

Each member of the second group played a dice game that would produce a score between 1 and 100 with an average of 50. They then self-reported the score to the experimenters. The higher your score, the more chances you got in a small lottery to be held at the end of the experiment, so the higher your score, the greater potential for gain.

The members of the low-power group reported an average score of 59. They were likely fudging a little. Those in the high-power group, by contrast, reported an average score of 70, which is so far removed from the expected average that the likelihood of this happening by chance was extremely small. The high-power group, to put it simply, cheated.

What this indicated is that high-power people judged others more harshly but themselves more leniently and what was objectionable to them when done by others was significantly less so when done by themselves. The attitude seemed to be "It's okay for me but not for you."

Power corrupts.

To test their finding more directly, Lammers and Galinsky ran a second test on a different group of volunteers. Divided, "primed," and reorganized the same way as before, the first of these groups was asked how acceptable or unacceptable it was for someone else to break the speed limit if they were late for an appointment and also how acceptable/unacceptable it would be for they themselves to do it.

For the high-power people, it was worse if others did it than if they did it themselves; again, they judged others' behavior more harshly than their own. The low-power group judged themselves and others the same.

The other group was asked a similar question about fudging on your tax return. Yet again, the high-power people were like "if you do it, it's bad; me, not so much." Interestingly, in this case the low-power people said it was worse, i.e., more immoral, for themselves than for others: They judged others more leniently than themselves. What remained consistent, though, was the sense of the high-power members that it was acceptable for them to do things which were not acceptable for others.

Because power corrupts.

So the pair of researchers did a third, more subtle version. In this one, they "primed" four groups: a high-power group whose members felt they were in such a position legitimately, another high-power group but one whose members felt they shouldn't have gotten that power (that is, the power was "illegitimate") , and the two associated low-power groups: one "legitimately" so and one "illegitimately" so.

In this case, the description of the experimental question wasn't clear to me, but as best as I understand it, the scenario was this: You find a bike lying around. You need a bike. How objectionable or unobjectionable is it for you to take the bike for yourself and keep it, rather than bringing it to the police in hopes that the real owner can be found? How about if someone else did it, that is, kept the bike?

Not only did both low-power groups find it more objectionable (more immoral) for they themselves to keep the bike than for others to do so, the "illegitimate" high-power group did as well. But "legitimate" high-power group found it to be significantly more objectionable for others to keep that bike than for they themselves to. Once more, it was "I can do what you can't; I can behave in ways you can't."

Because power corrupts.

Drs. Lammers and Galinsky
argue, therefore, that people with power that they think is justified break rules not only because they can get away with it, but also because they feel at some intuitive level that they are entitled to take what they want. ... If [the researchers] are right, the sense which some powerful people seem to have that different rules apply to them is not just a convenient smoke screen. They genuinely believe it.
Because power corrupts.

You want a real-world example? Try tasers. As too many have forgotten (to the point where I have had taser-lovers actively deny it), they were originally pitched as an alternative to firearms, as weapons that could be, would be, used in situations where otherwise guns would have been.

Well, I have written about these contemptible things a number of times but even the very first time, over seven years ago, I predicted they would be abused:
The infliction of pain, sometimes intense, to "secure compliance" - better described as meek and unquestioning obedience - is well-established practice among police forces everywhere. With the increasing availability of tasers ... will come the increasing temptation to use them routinely, no longer in lieu of lethal force but in lieu of persuasion and patience, no longer against someone posing a physical threat but against someone giving "a hard time," no longer for protection but for dominance.
And we have seen exactly that in the years since. That has come exactly true.

We have seen children as young as six tasered. We have seen unarmed grandmothers tasered. (In fact, Amnesty International has determined that 80-90% of those tasered were unarmed.) We have seen people in wheelchairs tasered. We have seen severely mentally handicapped people tasered. We have seen people already arrested, already in handcuffs, tasered. We have seen people holding babies tasered. We have seen people tasered for running onto a baseball field. We have seen people tasered repeatedly for not obeying a cop's order quickly enough. We have seen people tasered for nothing more than being frightened. We have seen people being threatened with being tasered for nothing more than arguing with a cop.

And we have seen hundreds die.

The fact is, police have shown they cannot be trusted to use tasers in the way and for the limited purpose for which they were originally pitched and marketed. They cannot be trusted to not use tasers "routinely, ... no longer for protection but for dominance."

Because, dammit, power corrupts! And anything and everything we do with regard to social policy has to keep that in mind. Power corrupts.

Footnote: In considering the people who demanded higher morality of themselves than others. Drs. Lammers and Galinsky coined the term "hypercrisy." They suggested that the results were a product of seeking to avoid the possibility of punishment.

Personally, I think they are wrong. I think, rather, that the experience of low power has the opposite effect of that of high power: It increases empathy. So for example in the case of the bike, low-power respondents were thinking "It would be wrong of me to keep the bike - but someone else, well, you know, maybe they really needed a bike, so maybe, I dunno, maybe that wouldn't be so bad."

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