Supreme Court

You've Changed, Man

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Writing in The Wall Street Journal, Jonah Lehrer explores the psychological literature on power. Contrary to popular stereotype, Lehrer writes, the best way to accumulate authority isn't through Machiavellian backstabbing; it's by being considerate and friendly. Or so say studies of groups ranging from college sororities to troops of chimpanzees. But once you've accumulated power, your behavior often changes:

We're ALL in the hands of the monolith, dude.

"It's an incredibly consistent effect," [psychologist Dacher] Keltner says. "When you give people power, they basically start acting like fools. They flirt inappropriately, tease in a hostile fashion, and become totally impulsive." Mr. Keltner compares the feeling of power to brain damage, noting that people with lots of authority tend to behave like neurological patients with a damaged orbito-frontal lobe, a brain area that's crucial for empathy and decision-making. Even the most virtuous people can be undone by the corner office.

Why does power lead people to flirt with interns and solicit bribes and fudge financial documents? According 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.

The scholars cited in the piece are most persuasive when they observe actual social hierarchies in action. They are least persuasive when they draw sweeping conclusions from dubious experiments. The article's most ridiculous moment comes when it describes a study whose subjects were asked "to either describe an experience in which they had lots of power or a time when they felt utterly powerless. Then the psychologists asked the subjects to draw the letter E on their foreheads. Those primed with feelings of power were much more likely to draw the letter backwards, at least when seen by another person. [Adam] Galinsky argues that this effect is triggered by the myopia of power, which makes it much harder to imagine the world from the perspective of someone else." That seems about as believable as palmistry.

Of the studies Lehrer describes, I found this one most intriguing:

Deborah Gruenfeld, a psychologist at the Stanford Business School, [analyzed] more than 1,000 decisions handed down by the United States Supreme Court between 1953 and 1993. She found that, as justices gained power on the court, or became part of a majority coalition, their written opinions tended to become less complex and nuanced. They considered fewer perspectives and possible outcomes. Of course, the opinions written from the majority position are what actually become the law of the land.

I can't really judge this study without knowing how Gruenfeld measured complexity and nuance, but she may well be on to something. Though it's possible that she's actually stumbled on a different corruption of power: Perhaps as the justices' status grows, they're more prone to making their subordinates do their work.

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  1. Marvel Comics and the Kinks in one post.

    Excellent.

    1. Someday Hubble will discover Kirbyspace
      http://www.baddaystudio.com/kirbyspace.jpg

  2. Perhaps the longer the justices are in position, the more resentment they develop toward their job.

    If I had a lifetime job guarantee, then I would probably be phoning it in after a few years….

    1. Its more an attitude of arrogance than phoning it in-imo.

  3. “Then the psychologists asked the subjects to draw the letter E on their foreheads. Those primed with feelings of power were much more likely to draw the letter backwards, at least when seen by another person. [Adam] Galinsky argues that this effect is triggered by the myopia of power, which makes it much harder to imagine the world from the perspective of someone else.” That seems about as believable as palmistry.”

    Not if the pattern is consistent. I don’t think it shows myopia, I think it means they are becoming more self-centered, much like kids that close their eyes and think they’re invisible.

    Great article.

    1. I am a man who has remained humble despite my position of power. The psychologists who tested me had their assumptions stymied by the fact that the letter E on my forehead wound up being frontwards from their point of view.

      Of course, I had to dispatch one of my manservants after the test because he drew the e lower case on my forehead and that simply will not do.

    2. Rather than in terms of “sympathy”, I think it might best be framed in another way — the more power one accumulates, the less inclined one is to be rigorous in one’s thinking, or to “second guess” one’s self, since no one else has the authority to do it anyway.

    3. The point is, something caused that difference. Their interpret’n may be akin to palmistry, but it’s interesting that there would be such a difference produced. Can you think of any better explanation?

    4. Actually as I read of the study my first thought went to the weirdos who, as in the eye test, would’ve drawn the E upward or downward — or even weirder, at some other angle.

    5. I simply do not buy the results of that experiment. You have to be seriously stupid to draw a letter backwards on your forehead…I would think the fact that you can’t see what you’re doing even from your own perspective would force you to think about what it looks like from the perspective of another.

      If the study had said that they had to write the E on the front of their thighs and the powerful ones tended to write it upside down from the perspective of someone facing them, that would have been a believable result because you can actually see what you’re writing from your own POV.

      It seems likely to me that so few people in either group wrote the E backwards that the result is not statistically significant. I’d have to see the raw data.

      1. I guess they had the subjects draw the “E” in a mirror. So in the mirror a backwards “E” looks correct from the perspective of the writer.

    6. Exactly. Science doesn’t care whether the experiment is *believable* or not, as long as the experiment is *repeatable*. Even if the first theory turns out to be bunk, that doesn’t mean the data is.

  4. Do you fuck with Acton? No, no you do not. Acton fucks with you.

  5. I can’t really judge this study without knowing how Gruenfeld measured complexity and nuance, but she may well be on to something. Though it’s possible that she’s actually stumbled on a different corruption of power: Perhaps as the justices’ status grows, they’re more prone to making their subordinates do their work.

    You see the same pattern in the transition from med student -> resident -> attending in medical documentation. It has less to do with power and more to do with paperwork fatigue and loss of novelty combining to result in the exclusion of all but the most essential details.

    1. As a student, I’m glad to know this.

  6. haha, I loved that comic! Nice pull. I was reading about this at the US Cellular site of all places and they felt the same way as you. The power is definitely in the wrong hands.

  7. I love that comic man. You are right though, the power is in the wrong hands.

  8. Why does power lead people to flirt with interns and solicit bribes and fudge financial documents?

    Uhh…isn’t the simpler answer that they can get away with it, or at least think they can?

    1. D-oh. Yes, that’s exactly it.

  9. I agree that they just do this so they can get away with it. http://www.uscellularphones.com

    1. Like spammers.

  10. I thought the picture was gonna be a screencap from the first “Mr. Show” sketch that hit the air, with sad-sack Bob Odenkirk walking around LA in his puffy jacket. “I remember that traffic signal–you’ve changed, man.”

  11. No image of Power Girl?

    JSAs never get any love.

  12. This is all Bush’s fault.

    1. get back to your remedial ethics course, you communist.

    2. But once you’ve accumulated power, your behavior often changes

      No, it’s Q’s fault for giving Reicher all that power.

      1. You bet. Riker’s first act after gaining the powers of the Q was to resurrect Wesley Crusher. You could tell it had to be the dark side.

        1. Still having that recurring wet dream of Crusher’s death in that series?? Never happened.

          1. I know that my Wesley dieth, and that he shall rot at the latter day upon the simulated Earth; and though after the Q-Riker resurrect him, yet in my flesh I shall see his corpse.

            (With apologies to Job)

  13. This is a powerful (no pun) for term limits. Who wants to be ruled by a bunch of “neurological patients with a damaged orbito-frontal lobe,”?

    1. Thomas Hobbes did.

    2. I do.

      1. It’s either that or Somalia. Someone lick my boots and I’ll give you a lollipop*.

        *Euphemism for Penis.

        1. you’ll give me a penis? yep, definitely brain damaged.

    3. Aye. Term limits. But then maybe they’d just try to cram more stuff through faster. Hell, maybe they’d no longer read bills they were voting for. Chortle.

    4. And the signs are there. From collaring ambush reporters to trying to get hook-ups from interns, they’re betraying their lack of discretion.

    5. Term limits don’t work as well as competitive districting, AKA not gerrymandering. Unfortunately only Iowa really has rational, geographically-based districting.

  14. All these effects are monocausal: Power is personally experienced as freedom from negative consequence.

    The powerful are assholes to precisely the degree that it doesn’t matter whether they’re assholes or not; it’s how power is measured, internally. Anything material, psychological, or interpersonal that they’d achieve by not being assholes is given to them anyway, plus they get all the good stuff being an unbounded asshole can get you. One of those things is more power.

    You don’t need a chemoarchitectonic atlas of the human brain to know which way the neurochemical mechanisms of reinforcement blow. Nietzsche and Freud had this shit on lock.

    1. The people who think children should always be told how wonderful they are and never disciplined don’t seem to have realized this fact.

      It’s a characteristic of pretty much every successful species — push the envelope until something pushes back — but we seem to think humans don’t have it.

  15. Contrary to popular stereotype, Lehrer writes, the best way to accumulate authority isn’t through Machiavellian backstabbing; it’s by being considerate and friendly.

    Depends on the group: considerate and friendly would likely work well with, say, a vegan pacifist womyn’s agriculture co-op in Berkeley (though even there a disguised form of authoritarian asshole might work, with a PC guise); not so much so in a Mafia hit man’s hierarchy.

    1. While I’m sure violence, machismo, and a willingness to shiv your rivals are significantly more important in ascending the mafia ladder than in ordinary hierarchies, I suspect that charisma, backscratching, and a willingness to share the take play their role as well.

      1. Your theory falls apart with the Klingons.

        1. Excellent point!

        2. No, it does not.

          While guile, backstabbing, and stealth all play their part, no Klingon ever leads other Klingons through sheer force alone. Warriors do not die well for your cause unless they feel that it is their cause as well.

    2. And the wombyn’s pacifist groups are not immune from internal power struggles that can bring out anything from passive-aggression to outright backstabbing.

    3. Meee-owww!

      1. Ow! That hurt so good!

    4. Obviously, you have never belonged to vegan pacifist womyn’s agriculture co-op in Berkeley.

      1. Female communists are vicious everywhere, from the killing fields of Cambodia to the dorms of Sarah Lawrence.

    5. Like Russel Crowe’s character in 3:10 to Yuma: “Kid, I wouldn’t last five minutes leading an outfit like that if I wasn’t as rotten as hell.”

    6. To further what Jesse said, when a group’s reason for existence is violence and backstabbing, obviously those are going to be important assets. I noticed that you felt uncomfortable enough with your position that you not only had to go to the extreme example of the mafia, but had to pick the most brutal subset of it.

      1. I picked two examples as far apart as humanly possible, and yet commenters here pointed out that in both groups, both behaviors pointed out in the article can be found.

        We are all more alike than we think.

        1. I’m not more alike than I think.

            1. Trust me, I’m not typical of me.

  16. I think the prospect of getting away with things is a huge incentive for gaining power for a lot of people.

    About this…
    “Lehrer writes, the best way to accumulate authority isn’t through Machiavellian backstabbing; it’s by being considerate and friendly. Or so say studies of groups ranging from college sororities to troops of chimpanzees.”

    I kind of wonder if the writer has encountered ANY sororities or chimps. “Considerate” would be the last word I would use to describe either.

    1. Actually, in chimp groups you see insider viciousness to outsiders. A core dominant group abuses everyone else. But within the core dominant group, the chimps are very nice to one another.

      You don’t accumulate power by being nice to everybody. You accumulate it by being nice to the muscle.

  17. Acton’s Dictum vindicates itself time and time again.

    “Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely. Great men are almost always bad men, even when they exercise influence and not authority: still more when you superadd the tendency or certainty of corruption by full authority.”

  18. I’ve often thought that the only good reason for developing a good reput’n is so you can eventually cash in by finishing your career with one great scam. If you’re just going to be honest, you don’t need a good reput’n.

    1. You might care about how people will think of you after you’re gone…or you might be in a field where there aren’t lucrative scams available and you’re going to depend on good reputation after you retire to get help from others.

    2. Of course honest people still need good reputations. Even if an honest person only cares about cash and not personal relationships, making wealth honestly usually requires working together with others, working together with people usually requires them to place some trust in you, and for them to feel safe enough to do that it helps to have a good reputation.

  19. Ah, ring tones.

  20. mostly OT:

    “When [Yglesias] gets frustrated because he can’t counter an argument, he calls people ‘dishonest’,” Lake said, later calling him “a child.”

    In concluding his interview with The Daily Caller, Yglesias said “go fuck yourself” and hung up the phone.”

    Read more: http://dailycaller.com/2010/08…..z0wcL97HnC

    1. Who the fuck wastes time on fat Matt Yglesias? Besides other Journopimps?

    2. Isn’t Yglesias a singer, or trombone player, or something? Why do I keep seeing him referred to as if he is a left-wing, ass kisser of the democrats in power?

  21. It has nothing to do with being considerate and friendly: it’s called Star Power and you either have it or you don’t. In the 1920s it was called “It” and Sigmond Romberg wrote a very popular song about it.

    The best modern example of star power is “Easy Rider.” When Jack Nicholson is on screen it’s as if there is no one else present – Dennis Hopper fades to nothingness. (I’m not even a JN fan,but it was just so apparent in ER.)

    It’s also age-related. From ages 12-50 I had incredible skin and a very vibrant personality.
    At 65, it’s alllllll gone.

  22. When I tried to draw an E on my forehead it came out a giant L. What does this mean?

    1. It means “lovable”.

      Keep telling yourself that. Ignore the snickers.

      1. I am quite affable.

  23. It explains why Hollywood directors have such hardons for dictators like Castro, Chavez, etc.

  24. About the supreme court decisions, it could just be that correct positions don’t need as much “nuance” and bending the constitution to whatever shape you need it takes more written justification.

    1. Exactly. “No law”, literally applied, results in amazingly unnuanced SCOTUS opinions.

      The Constitution is largely devoid of nuance, because the authors genuinely believed that the powers granted government should be severely limited.

      It takes nuance to turn “no law” into “a buttload of nannystate laws”.

    2. Sure. The weaker your arguments, the more of them you have to make.

  25. When you’re not powerful, you have no choice but to listen to feedback from other sources, telling you when you’re wrong (or when others think you’re wrong). The powerful have the option of dealing only with sycophants who will never tell them that they’re wrong.

    Note that if they are running a business, it’s a lot harder to insulate yourself, as the market will provide feedback even if the CEO’s immediate underlings don’t. For politicians, who only really get feedback every couple (or four or six) years or so, the insulation from corrective feedback and / or reality can be pretty great before it results in negative consequences for the powerful person.

    1. “Communication is only possible between equals.” ?Hagbard Celine

      1. I think the Bobs (both of whom I got to know) were quoting “Principia Discordia”, or someone, there.

    2. You haven’t tried to manage a 20-something lately have you?

      If you had, you would realize that these young workers don’t feel much of an obligation to listen to any negative feedback from anyone.

      1. Depends on the 20-ish year old. I’ve worked with some who were diligent, and others who weren’t.

  26. I wonder if this lulzy crapola could be somehow related. Saw that linked on Drudge and I thought it was a joke.

    But, no, Sheryl Crow really is a vain twat. Color me surprised.

    1. Makes you wonder if Lance got a similar list.

      “Friday, and Saturday: Full intercourse permitted with a minimum of thirty (30) minutes of foreplay. Anal sex not permitted, with the exception of one (1) pinky inserted into the anus during intercourse and/or cunnilingus. A small bottle of lavender scented non-petroleum, environmentally degradable vaginal lubricant must be provided on each day.”

  27. Isn’t the study about drawing an E on your head the ultimate proof that power corrupts? I mean, some headshrinkers get a grant, round up a sample of volunteers, and first thing they do is make them graffiti their own faces.

    I bet the poor shmuck grad student who was the last name on the publication had to get purple nurpled too.

  28. You know you’re really powerful when a girl says she wants to do 69 with you but you do 96 instead.

  29. Wow, that musta been a total trip dude. Seriously.

    Lou
    http://www.web-privacy.at.tc

  30. People have always abused their power and let it change them in one way or another. Take for example people like talk show hosts who feed off the influence they have over the masses. This is a good read about the subject: http://bit.ly/aylWPp

  31. One of the more interesting aspects to this research (and one that is consistent with a libertarian world view) is that power makes people act like assholes only when they believe they deserve their high status:

    http://www.kellogg.northwestern.edu/faculty/galinsky/Power Hypocrisy Psych Science in press.pdf

    So the key is:

    1) Don’t give anybody too much power in the first place, and

    2) Make sure anybody in a position of power understands that it’s a temporary and insecure assignment depending as much on good luck as merit.

    (One of the disturbing things about Obama from this perspective is he seems to believe he was born to be president and that we all really don’t really deserve anybody as wonderful as he is).

    The other cool (but scary) result is that one reason that the powerful become lying assholes is that lying assholery no longer feels even bad or wrong to them:

    http://www4.gsb.columbia.edu/i…..erful+Lies

    So it’s not that they consciously calculate that they can get away with unethical behavior, it’s that it doesn’t even feel unethical any more. Which is why they seem genuinely surprised that anybody takes offense.

  32. Some kid in Delhi posted an economic rebuttal to the psychological stuff in the article here: http://fweconomics.wordpress.c…..-rational/

  33. URGENT THREADJACK!

    Tila Tequila Attacked with Feces by Raging Juggalos!

  34. A subcommittee of the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform will hold hearings on Defense Secretary Robert Gates’ decision to cut the Pentagon’s military contracting budget by 10 percent a year for the next three years.

    The hearings come in response to a request by U.S. Rep. Gerry Connolly (D), his office said. Connolly requested further congressional oversight into Gates’ decision in a letter to the subcommittee’s chairwoman sent Wednesday.

    “While I commend the Secretary’s goal of better controlling defense costs, I question the justification for such actions,” he wrote. “These latest proposals no doubt will have significant ramifications on federal management, staffing and procurement, and they deserve tougher scrutiny before we sink additional time and resources into such an effort without having a better idea of whether it will in fact produce the desired results.”

    This is why taxes are “too low”.

  35. “It’s an incredibly consistent effect,” [psychologist Dacher] Keltner says. “When you give people power, they basically start acting like fools. They flirt inappropriately, tease in a hostile fashion, and become totally impulsive.”

    People that attain too much power turn into assholes. The science is in.

    Tomorrow: Boiling water turns the water into steam.

  36. More examples of those in power unable to see the peasants

    “We did not anticipate the level of discontent out there until October,” Mr. Glickman recalled in an interview. “I was in parades all over my district, and I would see people campaigning for my opponent. I would say to my wife, ‘Who are these people?’ “

    “Some people were taken aback by the anger,” said Representative Barney Frank of Massachusetts, who is hardly among the most vulnerable Democrats but said he was campaigning harder than any other election since 1982. “We’re professional people who are used to affection. It’s almost disorienting.

  37. Mr. Keltner compares the feeling of power to brain damage, noting that people with lots of authority tend to behave like neurological patients with a damaged orbito-frontal lobe

    “Ladies and Gentlemen, please give a warm welcome to Congressman Charles Rangel!”

  38. Mr. Keltner compares the feeling of power to brain damage, noting that people with lots of authority tend to behave like neurological patients with a damaged orbito-frontal lobe

    I would submit that the power doesn’t change the person at all.

    It just makes them more honest.

    The inappropriate behaviors were there all the time. The person merely exerted effort to suppress them.

    Power allows people to do what they want. But the “powered” version of the personality is the real one and always was the real one. It’s the pre-power personality that is a mask and a ruse.

    1. That almost seems like a chicken or the egg argument.

      If you follow that logic you could start looking what people seek power and it’s possible those seeking power are more predisposed to the traits or actions seen as undesirable.

      1. I think we have to come down squarely on the side of “egg”.

        Let’s just analogize it to wealth.

        If someone wins the lottery and goes out and buys themselves a huge house and a car and some strippers, do you say to yourself, “Wow, that guy really changed. He never liked huge houses and nice cars and stripper blow jobs before”? Of course not. Because you know very well that he liked all of those things all along and as soon as he had the money to buy them, he did so.

        1. Are physical things a person likes the same as a person’s behavior?

  39. Then there were the company’s employees. The consensus in Silicon Valley is that Mr. Hurd was despised at H.P., not just by the rank and file, but even by H.P.’s top executives. (Perhaps this explains why Ms. Lesjak was so quick to denigrate him once she took over.) “He was a cost-cutter who indulged himself,” was one description I heard. His combined compensation for just his last two years was more than $72 million ? a number that absolutely outraged employees since their jobs were the ones being cut.

    Rob Enderle, a well-known technology consultant, noted that in recent internal surveys, nearly two-thirds of H.P. employees said they would leave if they got an offer from another company ? a staggering number. “He didn’t have the support of his people,” Mr. Enderle said. Although he was good at “holding executives’ feet to the fire, he seemed to be the only one benefiting from H.P.’s success,” Mr. Enderle continued. “He alienated himself from the people who might have protected him.”

    Joe Nocera

    Not much contradictory evidence, here.

    1. “His combined compensation for just his last two years was more than $72 million ? a number that absolutely outraged employees since their jobs were the ones being cut.”

      Yea, capitalism!

  40. I once played agame of touch rugby against a group of senior executives on a training course and the amount of cheating and dishonesty was absolutely staggering.

    1. Try playing with lawyers.

  41. It would be better for studies like this if they were written a bit less from the POV of someone who spends his days looking up.

    Many times, at least with good leaders, nothing has actually changed other than perception.

    Self-deprecating humor, seen as charming and humble on the way up, becomes ‘bids for sympathy’ or ’emotional manipulation’ when former collegues are now on a rung below you.

    Flirtatiousness becomes harassment when one suddenly has power–no matter how it happened before. Suddenly your co-workers are subordinate–and forbidden.

    Good natured jibing and bullshitting turns very quickly into bullying and eavesdropping after one moves up. Saying something offhandedly to you is no longer safe. Likewise, poking fun of a co-workers clothing choice–no matter how often that happened before between you–suddenly comes from a different direction.

    Sycophants are like remoras–you don’t have to ‘surround yourself with them’–they just show up. A good leader/boss works to keep them at bay(and it’s really hard to do this when some of them turn out to have been your friends)

    And it gets nasty if one doesn’t engage in the nepotism and favoritism that you all used to complain about regarding the person who was above you–now that you’re there, ‘fixing things’ becomes far less important than rewarding friends.

    If you don’t do it, you’re an ass, a person with lots of authority behaving like a neurological patient with a damaged orbito-frontal lobe.

    And if you do do it, you’re merely continuing the cycle.

    Someone who had power has the additional task, once that power is ‘given'(another ‘looking up’ thing–power is rarely given, it must be won). They must be able to show those around them that they have not changed.

    That is much harder than accumulating power.

  42. I can’t really judge this study without knowing how Gruenfeld measured complexity and nuance?but Eyes of the beholder, the wise see wisdom..

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