The Frontal Cortex

Political Corruption

The pathetic behavior of the Illinois governor – his brazen attempt to sell a Senate seat – raises the larger question of power and corruption, and whether having a position of power reliably leads to unethical behavior. (My first thought, upon hearing that Blagojevich had been recorded by the Feds, was that even the lowliest corner boys on the Barksdale crew were smart enough to not say incriminating stuff over the phone.) Here’s some suggestive evidence from Richard Conniff, writing in the Times:

Researchers led by the psychologist Dacher Keltner took groups of three ordinary volunteers and randomly put one of them in charge. Each trio had a half-hour to work through a boring social survey. Then a researcher came in and left a plateful of precisely five cookies. Care to guess which volunteer typically grabbed an extra cookie? The volunteer who had randomly been assigned the power role was also more likely to eat it with his mouth open, spew crumbs on partners and get cookie detritus on his face and on the table.

Why does feeling a sense of power change our behavior? Part of the problem is that power is isolating. Our sense of fairness is innate, but it’s also fragile. As the Times notes:

Mr. Blagojevich had grown increasingly isolated in recent years, particularly from his own state’s Legislature and even from his father-in-law, Dick Mell, a powerful longtime Chicago alderman who showed him the political ropes as a younger man.

The governor was rarely seen around his offices in Chicago and Springfield, preferring instead to spend time at home on the North Side.

“I believe he became a prisoner of his own home,” Mr. Jacobs said.

Research by Elizabeth Hoffman, Kevin McCabe, and Vernon Smith, involves a variant of the ultimatum game, that simple economic task where one person (the proposer) is given ten dollars and told to share it with another person (the responder). The proposer can divide the money however they like, but if the responder rejects the offer then both players end up with nothing.

These economists play a variation called “the dictator game.” Unlike the ultimatum game, in which the responder can decide whether or not to accept the monetary offer, in the dictator game the proposer simply dictates how much the responder receives. Contrary to the predictions of economists, these tyrants are still rather generous, and give away about one-third of the total amount of money. Even when people have absolute power, they seem to remain constrained by their moral instincts, which encourage fairness.

However, it only takes one minor alteration for this benevolence to disappear. When the dictator cannot see the responder – they are isolated – the dictator begins acting with the kind of unfettered greed expected by economists. Instead of giving away a significant share of the profits, they start offering mere pennies, and pocketing the rest. According to McCabe, this experiment reveals how economic exchange breaks down once people become socially isolated. When that happens, the rational Machiavelli inside us takes over, and our sense of fairness is squashed by our sense of selfishness. It is the loneliness of absolute power that makes it absolutely corrupting.


  1. #1 Tom Clancy
    December 10, 2008

    One of those things I always mean to write about but never get around to is that this is a recurring theme in Patrick O’Brian’s Aubrey & Maturin series. The sea captain has to be a tyrant to make sure everyone stays alive, but the price of command is an awful loneliness.

  2. #2 Anibal
    December 10, 2008

    How that would affect our Obama?

  3. #3 Stan
    December 11, 2008

    “According to McCabe, this experiment reveals how economic exchange breaks down once people become socially isolated.”

    Economic exchange is by nature abstract. Social isolation (alienation) is simply a predicate. The invisible hand is economic mysticism.

  4. #4 arlo
    December 17, 2008

    then shouldn’t the people in power be encouraged to spend more time with those they govern?

  5. #5 chat
    December 23, 2008


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