Corruptible (2021) investigates how power corrupts people, what type of people are attracted to power, and what we can do as a society to make sure that more good people acquire power, and wield it justly.
- Exec Summary
- FULL SUMMARY
- Video Summary
- MORE WISDOM
- Power does corrupt, but not as much as many think
- Power tends to attract worst people, but that’s especially true for despot-type of power
- Corrupt systems attract worse people, while better systems attract better people
- The environment changes how people behave, with better environment eliciting better behavior. Meaning…
- There is much we can do as a society to design systems that attract, screen, and promote better people and leaders
About the Author:
Brian Klaas is an American political scientist, a university professor (University College London, LSE), and contributing writer at The Atlantic, and also runs a podcast aptly called “Power Corrupts Podcast“.
The 4 Corruptible Questions
Klaas says in the introduction that Corruptible seeks the answer to these 4 questions:
- Do worse people get power?
- Does power make people worse?
- Why do we let poor leaders lead?
- How can we ensure that incorruptible people get into power and wield it justly?
After introducing a few initial studies and personal observations (or anecdotes), the author proposes the following hypothesis:
- Power makes people worse —power corrupts (Marc Ravalomanana example)
- Worse people are drawn to power—power attracts the corruptible. (psychopathic pharmacist aboard the Dutch East India Company’s Batavia; the guards in Zimbarod’s Stanford Prison Experiment).
- We are attracted to bad leaders for bad reasons, and so we tend to give them power. (Study showing that Both kids and adults picked with a 70% accuracy the political election winners just by looking at faces alone. And, I quote, “several other studies have shown that those who are more aggressive or rude in group discussions are perceived as being more powerful and leader-like than those who are more cooperative or meek“).
- System-centric view says that bad organizations attract bad people and good ones good people and incentivize good behavior. (a study in India showed that the students who cheated more were also more likely to want to join the notoriously corrupt civil service. A similar experiment in Denmark showed the opposite: the more honest students wanted to join the civil service, and the more corrupt ones wanted to pursue careers that would make them very rich)
- Consequences also matter: a study shows that when diplomats could park illegally in NYC without consequences, diplomats from corrupt countries racked up an endless list of tickets. But even diplomats from “clean” countries started taking advantage of the situation and parking illegally (albeit not nearly as much). But when the mayor changed the rule and parking illegally started incurring costs, the corrupt diplomats quickly dropped the illegal parking
- Beliefs about the environment also matter, and a study showed that when southern Italian employees moved to the north, they started shirking less. And the other way round
And these are the results of Klaas’ investigation:
Power does corrupt: Yes
Most studies find that power does make us worse, says the author (dictators games examples).
Quoting Keltner and his “Power Approach and Inhibition Theory”, the author also says that “People who enjoy elevated power are more likely to eat impulsively and have sexual affairs, to violate the rules of the road, to lie and cheat, to shoplift, to take candy from children, and to communicate in rude, profane, and disrespectful ways.”
Other potentially negative consequences of power include:
- Risk-taking behavior increase
- Over-confidence in one’s ability to control risks (illusory control)
- Lower empathy
- Higher hypocrisy
But with some caveats: people overestimate the “corrupting power of power”
However, power doesn’t corrupt as much as people think.
There are 4 phenomena that make us believe that power corrupts more than it actually does:
- Power sometimes only offer immoral options to tackle some issues: in some cases the options available to those in power involve trade-offs and choices for the “least evil” (“dirty hands” issue)
- Rotten apples get better at being bad, so it’s not like the got worse with power, they simply learned to be more effective which makes them seem like they got worse (“learning to be good at being bad” issue”
- More opportunity for being bad gives the impression of power making people worse, rather than simply being worse than us all (“opportunity knocks” issue)
- People in power seem worse are under heavier scrutiny, so it’s not like they become worse when they get power, but it’s that the bad stuff they’d do anyway is now more likely to surface (“under the microscope” issue)
Worse people are drawn to power: Yes
Corruptible people are drawn to power like moths to a flame
Especially, dark triads people are strongly drawn to positions that give them an opportunity for dominant leadership—leadership that involves controlling others—and particularly so in finance, sales, law, and politics.
Dark triad people aren’t attracted to non-profits.
Instead, says Klaas:
The areas where the dark triad is most overrepresented are many of the most influential areas of society.
We are attracted to bad leaders: Yes
There is a tendency for people to fall for the allure of the charismatic, the confidence of the narcissists, the social dominance of the political strongmen.
Bad environments attract worse people: Yes
Systems and places that are notoriously corrupt and offer large rewards without any oversight against bad behavior attract more corrupt people.
The system can make people better or worse: Yes
Not only do we behave differently depending on systems, but we also behave differently depending on how we believe a system operates.
We can shape our environments to improve leadership for all: Yes
Klaas says that many of our current systems to elect people in power help bad people to get power.
For example, in corporations, the standard job interviews are perfect formats for narcissists, Machiavellians, and psychopaths.
The author then lists a few solutions to how we can improve our systems to attract, screen, and promote better people.
Dark Triad Men Advance More Easily
In another study, researchers evaluated just under a thousand corporate employees for dark triad traits. They found that narcissists made more money and Machiavellians were better at climbing the corporate ladder. Psychopathy, on the other hand, damaged the career prospects of employees who scored high on it, probably skewed by the “unsuccessful” or undisciplined psychopaths who were unable to blend in.
However, the author then adds a caveat to psychopaths’ apparent unsuccess:
When they work in harmony, some of the most destructive elements of psychopathy can not only be blunted, but turned into advantages. The psychopaths who are in the boardrooms are the intelligent ones who figured out a way to control themselves as they sought to control others.
We wrote extensively on this and it’s one TPM’s reasons of existence: to level the field for the good guys.
The Ideal World Promotes Good People & Discourages Bad Ones
The ideal world would:
- Make sure that incorruptibles seek power, get it, and hold on to
- Make it harder for corruptibles to do the same
Says the author:
The challenge facing us is figuring out how to get more of those shy incorruptibles to start competing with the overconfident narcissistic corruptibles who were born believing that they deserve power because they’re God’s gift to man.
With this website, that’s how :).
The author proposes a few solutions, including:
- Get a broader and deeper pool of applications to choose from
- Actively seek kinder people with job descriptions and screening process
- Use oversight: “watched people are better-behaved people”
- Use oversight by sortition
- Use “random surveillance” to avoid a dystopian big brother of constant recording
- Maintain a strong free press with investigative journalism
- Rotate people to prevent entrenched corruption
- Audit decision-making, not just results
- Remind people of the responsibility of leadership and power
- Show people in power and leadership the costs and consequences of their action
- Decrease psychological distance. Such as, never allowing those in power to see people as abstractions, such as reported as aggregate numbers (many tools of leadership and war today instead serve to increase the distance)
- Psychological assessments for the top power positions:
But for those seeking significant power, a more thorough review at the early stages is likely to save a ton of time, money, and avoidable damage later. And for positions of enormous consequence, such as heads of state or CEOs of major companies, psychological evaluations for dark triad traits are probably wise, even if they’re currently considered unusual or insulting. At that level of power, the stakes are simply too high to worry about a brief bit of intrusive questioning.
In this (great) video the author himself provides an almost chapter-by-chapter summary of Corruptible:
It’s Better To Be A Beta Male Than An Alpha Male
Just to be clear, we’re talking about literal “beta” here, as in “second in command”:
Sapolsky’s theory was bolstered by a 2011 study led by Laurence Gesquiere of Princeton (…) the alpha males at the pinnacle were extraordinarily stressed (…) The best position to occupy was the beta male slot, where you could get access to all the spoils of power without the risk that comes with being the baboon sovereign.
And in humans, a study found that CEOs of company during financial turmoil looked like they had aged faster.
Range Weapons Made Size Less Important
An interesting and alternative theory on why size is less important to human status and success than most other great apes:
The development of ranged weapons therefore changed what “the fittest” meant when it came to survival of the fittest. Size was no longer as important. Evolutionary biologists have argued that this shift is a key reason why the physical size differences between males and females are narrower in humans than in any other great ape species.
For the record, I don’t personally think this is the main reason why.
The development of our brain has probably had a much bigger impact (and the development of weaponry is only one of the many consequences of our brain).
Complex Societies Amplified The Power of Status
Klaas provides readers with this historical background:
- Original hunter-gatherer tribes were too small and “status flat”
- As societies grew, the game of status and power changed
- Powerful people hold much power in our bigger societies
- The are both pros and cons to hierarchies, but they’re here to stay anyway, so no point in fighting them
Former Poor People Are More Likely To Display Wealth
In this case, the common pop-psychology trope of inferring over-compensation seems to be true:
Signals of excess wealth are particularly likely among those who have come from deprived backgrounds. It’s a mechanism to show the world that they’ve made it and now inhabit a new status.
We’re Wired For Racism
Unfortunately, our Stone Age brains produce serious biases about people who look different. For survival, our social species has evolved to quickly use cues to identify whether someone is like us, and a friend, or unlike us, and a potential foe.
many people still rely on these arcane, bigoted sorting mechanisms as a cognitive shortcut, even though it’s completely irrational.
Functional Pyshocpaths May Be Useful to Society, Sometimes
Says the author:
Dutton and Ray may have a point. In some jobs, being cold and unaffected by stress or emotion are hugely useful. Dutton highlights a few, such as being a surgeon or a Special Forces soldier. Both are at their best when they blunt their emotions the most. Functional psychopaths might also make excellent bomb-disposal technicians who never crack under pressure. In previous research, elite troops and bomb-disposal technicians didn’t experience massive spikes in their heart rates during intense stress. Some were actually more relaxed in highly stressful situations. That physiological abnormality allows them to carry out intense tasks without getting overwhelmed. Perhaps there’s a way to channel the dark triad to make society a little brighter.
However, the author strongly differentiates between functional and non-functional.
Plus, he adds, it’s not like you can so easily differentiate between the two:
But here’s the rub: How can you tell whether a psychopath is functional? Manipulative superficial charm comes naturally to them. They’re often masters of deception. What if you get it wrong? Do you want a dysfunctional psychopath cloaked as a functional one in a Special Forces unit? Screening tests and psychological evaluations are useful, but they’re not foolproof. Even if you could correctly discern that someone is a “functional” psychopath, would you go into surgery knowing one is about to slice you open?
Higher Testosterone May Further Exacerbate The Negative Effects of Power
For an added (and especially dignified) twist, the researchers also had participants drool into a straw. This allowed the researchers to measure testosterone levels in those who signed up for the experiment. When the researchers analyzed the data, they found something conspicuous: those who were in the high-power group and had high levels of testosterone were exceptionally likely to take the money for themselves.
Strongmen Political Leaders Exacerbate Threats To Justify Their Strongmen Stance
Authoritarian strongmen stoke up threats and fears to consolidate power.
In general, people prefer more masculine-looking and more aggressive men when they feel under threat.
So the political strongmen try to activate our hunter-gatherer instincts to seek the “strong leader” when we perceive a threat.
On hierarchy as natural to humans:
when humans get together in larger groups, flat societies become impossible. Put enough people together, and hierarchy and dominance always emerge. It’s an ironclad rule of history.
On dictator types being good at (false) self-promotion:
While Il Duce is rightly regarded as a fascist monster, one bit of acclaim has stayed affixed to his legacy, like a lonely beauty mark stubbornly poking out of an authoritarian carbuncle. I’m referring to the adage “He made the trains run on time.” There’s one problem with that statement: he actually didn’t.
Nonetheless, the Italian fascist did what so many in power do masterfully: he took credit for decisions made by others. If you only focus on surface-level results without examining the underlying context or the decision-making itself, you’ll end up reinforcing bad behavior rather than deterring it.
I learned a lot from Corruptible, and it’s a great book.
If the author addressed the following, it could become a classic and even a “TPM endorsed book”:
Initial Questions Felt Only Partially Answered
The four initial questions the author listed made me drool at the learning prospects in Corruptible.
And Klaas did a great job at selecting those questions that go at the core of power, and how we can work on it as a society for the benefit of all.
He also does a good job at partially answering some of them.
Unluckily, I felt though that Corruptible wasn’t fully dedicated to answering them, that the chapters were not laid out accordingly, and that the conclusions were far from clear.
Of course, for some questions, you cannot reach a clear conclusion.
But the “impossibility of reaching a conclusion” is also a conclusion. Most of all, it felt to me that reaching a more conclusive answer wasn’t attempted.
Instead, I got a lot of stories of police brutality, not enough women leading, and the empathy of psychopaths.
All arguments that felt tangential to the initial questions.
For example, I had to remove this whole section from the summary because I couldn’t find any final answer:
Who Gets & Keeps Power? Who Does NOT Want Power? Wasn’t Clear To Me
Early and across the book, the author asks these questions:
- Who doesn’t seek power: ???
- Who seeks power:
- Genetical factors: 30% of the variation of leadership positions held in life is accountable
- Psychology: people high in dark triads, “need for power” (nPow), “Social Dominance Orientation” (SDO)
- Dark triad men, who sometimes seek shortcuts to power despite the obvious risks (most despots end up badly, says the author)
- Who gets power: ???
- Who keeps power: ???
I personally feel that the answers to these initial questions weren’t very clear and well-developed in the book -or at least, weren’t clear enough for me to pick up on-.
Stories & Examples Detract From More Dispassionate Analysis
Stories are necessary to sell well.
Unluckily, sometimes they can take good space away from more dispassionate analyses and evidence.
And they can seed confusion, rather than add clarity -see various Malcolm Gladwell books, for example-.
To someone who’s looking for wisdom and stronger, more data-backed conclusions (ie.: me), stories are often more likely to detract, than to add value.
I found that the many stories in Corruptible were yes interesting, but that also made the book less clear and somewhat less conclusive.
Evolutionary Excursus Felt Too Long & Not Always Most Relevant
Also, I personally felt some parts were not correct.
The author advances range weapons as a “possible theory” as to why violence, brute force, and size matter less in humans than in chimps.
But even as a possible theory, it seems to me it doesn’t hold much water compared to other theories.
For example, why look at range weapons when we can explain via our brain development which in turn allowed for the development of weapons?
Usually, the deeper reason has more explaining power than the surface-level one.
Jumped To Some Conclusions Unsupported By Evidence (political bias)
For example, the author says:
(…) And maybe we, as humans, are somehow drawn to bad leaders for bad reasons.
However, the listed evidence to draw that conclusion are a study showing that we can pick election winners based on face and, I quote “several other studies have shown that those who are more aggressive or rude in group discussions are perceived as being more powerful and leader-like than those who are more cooperative or meek“.
However, to me, the fact that people can pick election winners based on their faces says nothing about “picking bad leaders”.
And a more aggressive person is also not necessarily a worse leader than a meek one -how would “meek” even make for a good leader trait?-.
A rude one may be a worse leader than a cooperative one, but I’d have liked to take a look at the study, to be honest, but it wasn’t listed.
How was “rude” defined”, and how “cooperative” was defined, for example?
Because as far as I know people don’t exactly love rude people and if there was a high-power but juster person in that group, I believe most people would have chosen the higher-power but just person-.
Sometimes A Progressive / Woke Bias
Unluckily, I had the feeling of political bias.
The “white men CEOs problem” in tech
To me, the very same frame that it’s something that needs to be fixed sub-communicates possible bias.
And then jumping to the conclusion that there is some systematic bias that needs to be fixed.
But the author never considers there may be reasons beyond bias that lead more (white) men to found companies.
Of course, there may be cultural or environmental roadblocks or elements that discourage women or other races to end up as tech CEO leaders.
However, in my opinion, the author doesn’t account nearly enough for the genetic and “natural” factor that leads more men to start and lead more tech companies.
In-group and outgroup are “completely irrational” shortcut biases?
Says the author:
Crucially, those from an out-group are more likely to be people that we see as potential threats—a point that we’ll return to momentarily.
Today, many people still rely on these arcane, bigoted sorting mechanisms as a cognitive shortcut, even though it’s completely irrational.
Hemm… And how exactly is that “completely” irrational?
Because I bet if it evolved, chances are that it worked.
And even today, I can think of a million reasons and situations where it’s completely rational as a quick shortcut.
Of course, we can all agree that it’s far from perfect and that it has way too many downsides, including society-harming downsides.
And still, that doesn’t make it “completely irrational”.
There are more examples, such as discounting all judgments based on appearances as biased and wrong, while instead research says that some judgments based on appearances and stereotypes can be more correct than pure chance.
Slight anti-American police bias
The author makes great points about policing and I learned quite a bit from it.
And yes, it may be true that, on average, American police are too aggressive.
However, by holding the positive example of New Zealand against the negative one of the US, the author seems to be making politically-charged statements about what’s better and what’s worse.
And he seems to jump to the conclusion that a “politer” and more “civilized” police force is necessarily better than a more civilized one.
Albeit that may often be true, it’s rushed to jump to that conclusion as if it were true in all situations and environments.
Where’s the data to show that sometimes more militarily skilled police may not be better for certain places or environments?
What if the “highly civilized” police force may be less effective in areas of high criminality?
Bit dismissive of the Stanford Prison experiment?
Says the author introducing Zimbardo’s famous Stanford Prison experiment:
If you’ve ever read a pop psychology book or watched a documentary about prisons, odds are pretty high that you’ve heard of a notorious study that seemed to suggest power does indeed corrupt. There’s just one problem: everything you think you know about that study is wrong.
Well, the author is right: there has been much misunderstanding around that experiment -and, in my opinion probably too much over-correction in the criticism during the replication crisis storm-.
And it’s true what he says next, such as that the study likely attracted a certain type of people (self-selection bias).
But still, as Zimbardo himself said, the experiment simply (also shows) that the environment does shape human’s behavior, and that the environment is likely a far more powerful force than most people would assume (something I’m sure the author would also agree with).
Could Add TPM’s Solution: Equipping Good People With The Skills To Win
The author lists some great solutions to the problem of “bad people in power”.
Our approach at TPM could have been a good addition:
Teaching good people how to compete and win.
That way, we don’t need to hope that the system can recognize the good people and screen out the bad ones. The better people -as in “lower in dark triad traits”- will at least have a chance to make it despite it all.
Corruptible is a good investigation with lots of golden nuggets on power, psychology, people’s character, and what it means to us all.
The original questions Klaas poses are extremely interesting both to us all as a civilization, and to this website and our mission.
Unluckily, despite some great insights and much that I’ve learned, I was left hoping for more focus on the original questions (ie.: who seeks power, who does not seek it, who gets it and keeps it, what can we do to get more power good people in charge).
More specifically, I found some lack of focus, too many stories instead of data, and underlying currents of political bias and cultural determinism (that fail to that fails to properly account for human nature, all typical of the Standard Social Science Model).
I wish the author could address that and then we’d have a classic and we could also reference it over and over (if Klaas is open for a chat, we could also talk about it and share it).
In the meanwhile, this is still a fantastic resource.
A great overview of power, tons of wisdom and golden nuggets, including precious takeaways to improve our society and civilization.
I learned a lot from it, I’ll be referencing it across our work, and I can recommend it.