How and why power corrupts (people and institutions)

How and why power corrupts (people and institutions) February 3, 2019

I’ve previously spoken about moral epistemology (here, then here, here, here, and finally here). I think that it should be possible to look at people’s values – that which gives rise to their morality – and see how that might impact their way of processing information (i.e. their biases beyond those in the normal range that we all share), including non-moral or pre-moral sense data. Further, at the societal level, we should be able to see people with certain value-preferences adopting certain roles in discourse in the public square.

Additionally, Johno posted a few weeks back about a talk we did together. The upshot of which was that the individual’s epistemological palette (both moral and non-moral) progresses from pure consequentialist (children and infants), to deontological (almost all pre-adolescents and many adults, especially fans of Kant), to virtue ethics (some adults, namely progressive conservatives, religious liberals, and progressives).

I am going to illustrate how, using this model, we may be able to tease apart some of the more confusing aspects of modern politics and political discourse. Please allow for the fact that this is still very much a work in progress.

Individuals have preferred values that motivate their behaviours. In the context of a society, and from a bird’s eye view, certain key values will give rise to certain behaviours more often than not. Needless to say, the day-to-day reality of the situation is more complex, so please allow me a little leeway in order to make a broader point. We’re going to look at just the first four segments of the model – those that fall under the general heading of consequentialist (Stimulation through to Power), and the first segment under deontology, Security. And we’ll look at it from a societal perspective, on the basis that societies are made up of individuals with preferences for these values.


Epistemological progression

  • Stimulation: Notice a problem
  • (Self-)Discovery: Investigate solutions to the problem
  • Achievement: Find a solution to the problem that works
  • Power: People come to you to solve that problem for them

The above could describe a social issue, an entrepreneurial venture, or whatever. The next segment in the model (as you can see above) is Security. To get there we move from consequentialist values to a deontological value. We go from noticing outcomes through Stimulation and Self-Discovery, and the reinforcement learning of Achievement, to Power (utilizing these achievements to improve one’s social standing). We then go from Power (in the consequentialist realm) a consequence of achievement, to Security (in the deontological realm). It’s deontological because those with power get to tell other people what the rules are.

This is a pattern that consistently repeats (which is why I think it’s important to describe this progression):

  • Notice a problem – wonder about a solution
  • Investigate solutions – this may be fruitless, but…
  • Find a successful solution – start a business, or a movement
  • People come to you for help – providing you social/financial capital

Power derived from social or financial capital is a means to your own security. Equally, that social or financial capital could be someone else’s means to their security, if only they could get it off you.

It’s important to note that the move from achievement to power, in the context of my model, is also a move from the left side of the model to the right, and that has relevance in the political sense. Achievement is a matter of individual success. Power only has relevance in the context of the social, because power without anyone to have power over is no power at all. The attraction to power is fundamentally what differentiates between Liberals and Libertarians, and it’s why Libertarians often identify with Conservatives or, more particularly, Conservative leaders.


Power? Absolutely!

The important thing about power is that it attracts a certain type of person, a person high in a psychological feature called Social Dominance Orientation[i]. That term means exactly what it seems to mean. SDO people set out to get to the top of hierarchies, and some are more cutthroat than others – we generally call the true cutthroats sociopaths (to make the link to Social Dominance Orientation explicit), but we also call them psychopaths[ii] (the ones that are more likely to actually cut throats). It is this fact that I want to highlight; that when we move from Achievement to Power, and from left to right, we suddenly see an abundance of psychopaths.

This might sound overblown, but let’s look at the most important power structures and hierarchies in human society: business, politics (and the law), religion, the media, and education. It so happens that the top 10 professions for psychopaths are in business (CEO or Salesperson), law (lawyer or police officer), media (including journalism), the clergy, and government (civil service). The two professions in the top 10 that don’t fall into those power structure categories are surgeons and chefs[iii], and the field of education doesn’t rate a mention. The vast majority of those whose civil service is political have backgrounds in law or business[iv].

“…what profession all these senators in Congress are? Law, law, law, business, law, law… Where are the scientists? Where are the engineers? Where is the rest of life?”

– Neil DeGrasse Tyson (and look who else is on the panel).

It has to be said that psychopathy, in and of itself, is not necessarily bad[v], but you would certainly want to manage the people that flock to these roles if they are psychopaths, which is difficult with their superficial charm and (often) high intelligence, and this is particularly a problem on the right, because the right embraces hierarchy and power structures, whereas the left is far more apt to question the legitimacy of an authority.

“Narcissism, Machiavellianism, psychopathy, and everyday sadism were associated with right-wing political orientation, whereas narcissism and psychopathy were associated with political extremism. Moreover, the relationships between personality and right-wing political orientation and extremism, respectively, were relatively independent from each other.” – Duspara, B., & Greitemeyer, T. (2017).

Indeed, of all of the public institutions I just mentioned, it’s probably only the media and journalism (and education) that people associate more with the left than the right… and thanks to business, most media outlets are owned by right-wing leaning people, likewise with education.


But how to get Power?

Now, what happens to those master manipulators who don’t make it to the top of a right wing hierarchy? Well, as I have suggested, achievement precedes power, so a nascent movement or business could attract a high-SDO individual (or sociopath) who is prepared to play a slightly longer game, and this can occur in any of the power structures mentioned earlier, however, politics and religion do seem to the the most fertile grounds. They are more fertile because they are predicated on a person’s values and can be more readily decoupled from reality – a strong leader can present the reality a person wants, rather than the reality that is. Business and media are much more strongly influenced by the environment, albeit that the business environment in particular is made up of past business and present laws.



I want to suggest that Tony Blair is high in SDO traits, and could rise to the top as a manipulator more readily in Labour than he could in the Tories (too much competition), and he remained popular by allowing the Labour policies he didn’t care about to continue, whilst positioning himself as a key player in the global hierarchy, a position he cemented with his handling of Iraq, and all it took were some well placed lies about WMDs. And now he swans about the Middle East making millions.

The idea that a sociopath might infiltrate an existing power structure, allow certain functions of that structure to continue unchanged to enable plausible deniability, all the while subverting the key aspect of that power is also discussed in this recent article, The Trump-Russia Investigation and the Mafia State.

Another example would be the unions in the UK in the late 70s, and particularly Arthur “All too often miners, and indeed other trade unionists, underestimate the economic strength they have” Scargill. Unions are left-wing institutions. They have been fought against since their inception by right wing institutions, because they are competing power structures. However, when unions act in ways that are more about shoring up their power, and protecting those at the top, which many unions have been accused of, you can be certain that high-SDO individuals are at the helm.

I would be very surprised if the turmoil in many US campuses in the social justice hierarchies that have sprung up isn’t due to the infiltration of high-SDO individuals. The question isn’t why is it so easy for those on the right to spot when things have gone wrong in new hierarchies on the left, but why are they so often completely blind to those on the left that also see it, and even blinder when SDO’s are evident in hierarchies on the right? This blindness remains, even when the old hierarchies in question are moving in an entirely different direction. We have, of course, had a regular commenter on this very blog rant and rave about the state of American universities, whilst extolling the virtues of the church.

In addition, look at what happened to communism. Communism is often portrayed as far left politics. The problem with that, though, is that, once it is entrenched, it becomes the status quo, and psychologically conservative people like to maintain the status quo. Once you have that large intransigent following, behind a sizeable power structure, you can be sure that SDOs will flock to it. You’ll notice that Trump, and some of his supporters are rather smitten with Putin – and it’s been said that Khrushchev and Kennedy compared notes by telephone and were struck by the similarities between their respective hardliners.

Finally, and, no surprise, I have to mention religion. All religions started out as small spiritualist cults with a few followers, but as soon as these cults develop a hierarchy, in flock the sociopaths… assuming that the cult wasn’t founded by a sociopath in the first instance (my partner is currently watching a documentary about Wayne Bent[vi]).


Types of SDO

I have no doubt that some readers will be certain that I am trying to portray liberals, and the left more generally, as pure as the driven snow. I’m not, indeed, I am recognizing the deficiencies in the left’s engaging in politics that allows the influx of high-SDO people in the first place (see Tony Blair and Arthur Scargill above). And, it has to be said, sometimes, the high-SDO person is there from the outset. Equally, I am pointing out that it is power-motivated right-leaning people (the people high in SDO traits, with “Narcissism, Machiavellianism, psychopathy, and everyday sadism” in their makeup) that come in and screw things up. But even that’s not true, because Libertarians are not really right-wing, what they are, is attracted to the vast number of entrenched followers that right-leaning institutions enjoy. In other words Libertarians and Conservative leaders agree about the importance of power, ideally personal power. Of course, the greater the power inherent in a given position, the less the individual with that power needs to be high-SDO to be negatively affected by it.

In the paper I cited previously by Ho, et al. (2015), they talk about two sub-types of the SDO orientation. The SDO-D and SDO-E. The former is the Dominance sub-type, the latter is the Egalitarian sub-type. The SDO-D is a “predictor of old fashioned racism, perceptions of zero-sum competition, and support for aggression against subordinate groups”, so, your common or garden variety “Old Guard” Southern States conservative politician.

“Compared with SDO-D, SDO-E was a better predictor of the ideologies and beliefs that are hierarchy enhancing but ostensibly have other legitimate rationales. Specifically, it was a better predictor than SDO-D of system legitimacy beliefs, political conservatism in the U.S., as well as support for the unequal intergroup distribution of resources and opposition to hierarchy attenuating social policies…” – Ho, et al., 2015 (p. 1012). [Emphasis mine.]

I emphasized the phrase “ostensibly have other legitimate rationales”, because that plausible deniability seems to be a much more common occurrence in modern politics (and note what I said about Blair, and the article about the Mafia state). That is the influence, I think, of the high-SDOs who would actually ace the “Psychopath Test”[vii]. I anticipate that they are individuals that cleave more to Libertarian ideology (SDO-E), than actual Conservative ideology, they have successfully subverted American Conservatism (“a better predictor than SDO-D of … political conservatism in the U.S.”), and they are actually the real extreme leftists (in sheep’s clothing). Their sense of Achievement is fulfilled by gaining Power by destroying other people’s security. There are still classic conservatives (SDO-D) that have lost their grip on the reins of power recently, but at least they were amenable to gradual change in a left-wards direction. The SDO-E type is happy stoking the fires of the world’s destruction as part of seeking their own end (psychopaths are high in suicidal ideation[viii]).


Summary and Conclusion

The pattern of self-destruction in new power structures consistently repeats, and is predicted by an extension of my model, taking into account the behaviour of both types of high-SDO individual:

  • Stimulation: Notice a problem – look for a solution
  • (Self-)Discovery: Investigate solutions – this may be fruitless, but…
  • Achievement: Find a solution – start a business or a movement

…Here be dragons (aka sociopaths, and high-SDO-Es looking to infiltrate power to gain security).

  • Power: People come to you – providing you social/financial capital

…Here be dragons (aka sociopaths, and high-SDO-Ds protecting their existing security).

  • Security: People with only self-interest (their own security) in mind attempt to wrest power from the founders and original idealists, whilst appearing to be part of the original movement, e.g. early adopters, true believers.

I think that this repeating pattern is what many on the right notice about new movements on the left, and for which they blame the left, because these movements only come to media attention once they have power, and that is often once high-SDOs are already in place. Additionally, high-SDOs on the right would want to demonize their competition coming from the left, so that demonization is part of the game, and conservative followers fall for this deception from SDO’s already in power.

References and useful links

[i] Ho, et al. (2015). The nature of social dominance orientation: Theorizing and measuring preferences for intergroup inequality using the new SDO₇ scale. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 109(6), 1003.

[ii]“Both [sociopaths and psychopaths] have a pervasive pattern of disregard for the safety and rights of others. Deceit and manipulation are central features to both types of personality. And contrary to popular belief, a psychopath or sociopath is not necessarily violent. … Psychology researchers generally believe that psychopaths [tend] to be born – that it’s a genetic predisposition – while sociopaths tend to be made by their environment.” – Mike Sparks ‘Hive Theory’ PDF


[iv] This is the most recent listing of professions for US congress that I could track down quickly, there’s no particular reason to believe it has changed all that much in the intervening years, despite the addition of a bartender.

[v] See for example The Disturbing Link Between Psychopathy and Leadership and The Pros to Being a Psychopath

[vi] Lord Our Righteousness Church

[vii] The Psychopath Test by Jon Ronson is a great read.

[viii] Dimensions of Psychopathy in Relation to Suicidal and Self-Injurious Behavior.

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