Power Corrupts, and Power Attracts the Corruptible

Picture of Statue of Demon Mahishasura atop Chamundi Hills in Mysore, India The recent sexual misconduct allegations of influential men abusing their towering positions for contemptuous behaviors provide yet another reminder that power corrupts. As the British politician and historian Lord John Dalberg-Acton famously wrote in an 1887 letter to the Anglican Bishop Mandell Creighton,

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 the certainty of corruption by authority. There is no worse heresy than that the office sanctifies the holder of it. That is the point at which … the end learns to justify the means.

The recent scandals lay bare the three distinctive characteristics of the intoxication of power: the inflation of the self, the devaluation of the helpless, and a dreadful shortfall in self-awareness of actions and consequences.

In the case of studio executive Harvey Weinstein, the worse outrage is that, many prominent people, despite their awareness of Weinstein’s uninhibited abuse, stayed silent—and possibly benefited. Some Hollywood celebrities are said to have overlooked his transgressions. Meryl Streep, one of Hollywood’s most successful actors, who once referred to Weinstein as ‘God,’ had to contend the blame that everyone in Hollywood knew of Weinstein’s conduct. His staff sheltered him or paid off victims, many of whom chose to remain silent for fear of derailing their budding careers. Going public would have hurt them more than it would have damaged Weinstein, until those accusations reach a critical mass and suddenly everyone flipped against him.

The Intoxication of Power

The British philosopher Bertrand Russell first wrote about the “intoxication of power” in A History of Western Philosophy (1945,) and best described what develops in the minds of many people who, in all walks of life, exercise a measure of power and dominance.

The Greeks, with their dread of hubris and their belief in a Necessity or Fate superior even to Zeus, carefully avoided what would have seemed to them insolence towards the universe. The Middle Ages carried submission much further: humility towards God was a Christian’s first duty. Initiative was cramped by this attitude, and great originality was scarcely possible. The Renaissance restored human pride, but carried it to the point where it led to anarchy and disaster. … Man, formerly too humble, begins to think of himself as almost a God.

In all of this I feel a great danger, the danger of what might be called cosmic impiety. The concept of ‘truth’ as something dependent upon facts largely outside human control has been one of the ways in which philosophy hitherto has inculcated the necessary element of humility. When this check upon pride is removed, a further step is taken on the road towards a certain kind of madness — the intoxication of power which invaded philosophy with Fichte. I am persuaded that this intoxication is the greatest danger of our time, and that any philosophy which, however unintentionally, contributes to it is increasing the danger of vast social disaster.

Idea for Impact: People with even the smallest amount of authority can and will find ways to abuse it

People can become corrupt with power, fame, wealth, and influence, and, as I’ve written previously, they regularly get away with it. The solution, I believe, is to subject our elites (and the sycophantic supporters who are disposed to collude in self-interest) to as many restrictions, supervisions, and checks and balances as possible, and scrutinize them closely so as to spot hubristic traits and symptoms of the abuse of power.

A Sense of Urgency

The most successful managers I know are highly attentive of their colleagues’ sense of urgency and incessantly adapt to them.

In his excellent Steve Jobs biography, Walter Isaacson evokes Apple CEO (and operations wizard) Tim Cook‘s responsiveness and a sense of urgency:

At a meeting early in his tenure, Cook was told of a problem with one of Apple’s Chinese suppliers. “This is really bad,” he said. “Someone should be in China driving this.” Thirty minutes later he looked at an operations executive sitting at the table and unemotionally asked, “Why are you still here?” The executive stood up, drove directly to the San Francisco airport, and bought a ticket to China. He became one of Cook’s top deputies.

Idea for Impact: Bosses and customers often respond more positively to your focus on creating a sense of urgency before emerging problems erupt in a crisis.

Expressive Writing Can Help You Heal

Give sorrow words;
the grief that does not speak;
whispers the o’er-fraught heart
and bids it break.
William Shakespeare, Macbeth (Act 4, Scene 3)

Expressive Writing Can Help You Heal

Confronting Upsetting Experiences: Expressive Writing for Healing

People often block out thoughts that provoke negative emotions as a way of reducing their stress and regulating their moods. However, intentional suppression of deep-seated emotions not only increases susceptibility to illness, but also amplifies the emotionality and associated psychological effects of the suppressed thoughts.

Discussing, venting, clarifying, or expressing a trauma is a natural human response. When this necessity is inhibited, emotional stress and physical illness ensue.

Facing up to deeply personal issues can promote physical health, well-being, and beneficial behaviors.

The scientific research on the benefits of putting negative experiences into words is extensive. Studies have shown that expressive writing about oneself and one’s traumatic or stressful experiences does produce significant health benefits. Expressive writing helps ameliorate mood disorders, reduces symptoms among patients with serious illness, improve a person’s physical condition after a heart attack, and even enhance memory.

Writing about Emotional Topics Brings About Improved Physical and Emotional Wellbeing

'Opening Up' by James Pennebaker (ISBN 1572302380) James Pennebaker, a psychology professor at the University of Texas at Austin, first investigated expressive writing as a healing process in the 1980s. Since then, research that spawned from Pennebaker’s pioneering studies, has revealed benefits could accrue to those who were dealing with divorces, lost love, death of loved ones, job rejections, terminal illness, even college students struggling with first-year transitions.

Here are the main points about the expressive writing method:

  • Choose the part of the day when you are most contemplative (that’s the morning for most people.) Sit down at a place where you are not likely to be disturbed.
  • Reflect about a very personal and important event. Consider a significant emotional upheaval that influences your life the most or has in the past. Your topic can be about a distress or failure, lost love, health-, school- or career-related anxiety, relationships, inner conflicts, death of a loved one, or just about any topic that you would like to express.
  • If you’re writing about an experience or an event that involves another person, it can help to organize your writing as a letter to that person, whether alive or dead.
  • Write your deepest thoughts about your chosen event or experience continuously for 20 minutes. If you run out of things to write or reach a mental block, just repeat or recap what you have previously written.
  • In your writing, deeply explore your thoughts about the event and describe its effect on you. In other words, write both about what happened and how you feel about it. Think about how you can handle these events and their consequences now—what you can do specifically.
  • Connect your personal experiences to other parts of your life. How do they relate to your childhood, your parents, people you love, who you are, or who you want to be?
  • Write for yourself as your thoughts arise. Be as direct, intense, and serious as possible. Do not worry about grammar, spelling, comprehensiveness, legibility, or structure. On the opening day of writing, your stories are not very structured, but over the three or four days, you will develop a more structured narrative.
  • After writing for 20 minutes, do not look back over. Simply fold the papers you used, seal them, and put them away (read more about the “worry box technique.”) Unlike psychotherapy, the expressive writing technique does not employ feedback to the participant.
  • 'Writing as a Way of Healing' by Louise Desalvo (ISBN 0807072435) Make a mental note of how you feel. It is not unusual to feel sad or disheartened after writing—these feelings usually fade away in an hour or so. In research experiments, many participants have reported crying or getting upset by the experience of writing about emotional upheavals, but most participants testify that the writing experience was meaningful in helping them organize their experiences.
  • Repeat this exercise for four consecutive days. You can write about the same experience on all four days or about different experiences each day. If you choose to write about the same topic on all the four days, try to wrap everything up by the fourth day.

Note that expressive writing is distinct from keeping a daily journal in that it allows people to step back for a moment and evaluate their lives. Pennebaker once said, “I’m not even convinced that people should write about a horrible event for more than a couple of weeks. You risk getting into a sort of navel gazing or cycle of self-pity. … But standing back every now and then and evaluating where you are in life is really important.”

Translating an Emotional Experience Into Language Makes the Experience Graspable: it Can Help You Find New Meaning in Life’s Ordeals

New research has shown that expressive writing—followed by expressive rewriting—can improve happiness and lead to behavioral changes. Narrative storytelling of an unpleasant and chaotic experience may make the experience and its effects more controllable. For instance, according this New York Times article,

At the Johnson & Johnson Human Performance Institute, life coaches ask clients to identify their goals, then to write about why they haven’t achieved those goals. Once the clients have written their old stories, they are asked to reflect on them and edit the narratives to come up with a new, more honest assessment. While the institute doesn’t have long-term data, the intervention has produced strong anecdotal results.

Expressive Writing Can Help Change the Way You Feel About Traumatic Events and About Yourself

Idea for Impact: Expressive Writing Can Help Change the Way You Feel About Traumatic Events and About Yourself

Expressive writing is a method of self-help that supplements the value of therapeutic talking to someone accepting and non-judgmental.

By exploring your deepest thoughts and feelings with a reflective, inquiring, honest attitude, you can shift perspective. Standing back and reflecting on your suffering from different points of view can bring about an improved emotional state. You can create your greatest opportunities for change by confronting the realities, reframing your experiences in terms of your values and priorities, and identifying impediments that stand in the way of purpose, joy, and contentment.

For more on the means and methods of expressive writing, as well its many confirmed physiological and behavioral benefits, read James Pennebaker’s Opening Up: the Healing Power of Expressing Emotion (1997) and Louise DeSalvo’s Writing as a Way of Healing (1999)

How People Defend Themselves in a Crisis

How People Defend Themselves in a Crisis The desire to protect and enhance one’s self-image is among the strongest motives of human behavior. No wonder scientific literature is laden with discussions on the ways in which people invoke self-deception in the interest of maintaining a favorable sense of their selves.

People have a propensity to avoid conscious awareness of fear-triggering worries, conflicts, and uncertainties. They engage in thought patterns that distort the external realities as a way of coping with distress.

Psychologists use the term “ego defense mechanisms” to describe the pattern of thought and behavior that arises in response to the perception of psychical danger.

Defense Mechanisms Play an Important Role in Self-Preservation

Sigmund Freud (1856–1939) wrote in The Ego and the Id (1923,) “We have come upon something in the ego itself which is also unconscious, which behaves exactly like the repressed—that is, which produces powerful effects without itself being conscious and which requires special work before it can be made conscious.” Freud’s daughter, Anna Freud (1895–1982,) and other psychologists identified twelve primary defense mechanisms:

  1. Denial: explicitly refusing to acknowledge the threatening reality even when presented with indisputable data (e.g. someone with a terminal illness rejecting the imminence of his death.) Denial may give the respondent some time to evaluate the meaning and seriousness of the threatening reality before reacting to it.
  2. Disavowal: acknowledging the threatening reality but downplaying its significance
  3. Suppression: intentionally engaging distractions to eliminate from consciousness any thoughts of the threatening reality
  4. Fixation: committing inflexibly to one specific mind-set or course of action
  5. Substitution: replacing an unattainable or unacceptable instinctual object or emotion with one that is more accessible or tolerable
  6. Displacement / Transference: redirecting emotions from their original object to a substitute object that is somehow associated with the original one.
  7. Compensation: making amends for a perceived deficiency that cannot be eliminated (e.g., a physical defect) by excelling in some other way.
  8. Grandiosity: exaggerated feeling of power or influence over the threatening reality
  9. Idealization: ascribing power or influence to an existent or imaginary “savior” (an individual or a organization)
  10. Defense Mechanisms Play an Important Role in Self-Preservation Intellectualization: thoroughly rationalizing a particular thought or action, by means of a misleading, but self-serving justification
  11. Projection: incorrectly attributing to others any objectionable thoughts or actions. According to Sigmund Freud, projection makes a person perceive his objectionable character traits in others as a means of avoiding seeing those very faults in himself. For example, a man who cannot accept his own anger may cope with his feelings by accusing others as angry.
  12. Splitting: fragmenting, isolating, and focusing on only certain elements of the threatening reality, instead of considering the complexity brought about by the crisis as a coherent whole

Idea for Impact: It pays to familiarize yourself with these twelve defense mechanisms and be able to identify them in how you (and others) react to emotionally charged situations, especially in close relationships. Defense mechanisms are natural forms of self-protection. However, used excessively, they can turn out to be pathological.

Reference: Cheryl Travers, “Handling the Stress” in Michael Bland (Ed.) Communicating out of a Crisis (1998)

Making Exceptions “Just Once” is a Slippery Slope

Making Exceptions Just Once is a Slippery Slope

Keeping Our Commitments Unwaveringly is Tough

The Harvard business strategy professor Clayton Christensen (of The Innovator’s Dilemma (1997) fame) often tells a story from his college days when he played basketball for his university team. His team worked hard all season and made it to the finals of some big tournament. The championship game was scheduled on a Sunday.

Christensen is a pious Mormon. Playing on the Sabbath (the “seventh day” is holy occasion and has a particular purpose, i.e. rest and spiritual renewal) was against his religious beliefs. The basketball team’s coach asked Christensen to break the rule for that big game, “I don’t know what you believe, but I believe that God will understand.” His teammates prodded him, “You’ve got to play. Can’t you break the rule, just this one time?”

Christensen prayed to God for guidance. After some reflection, he concluded that he would not play in the finals because he did not want to violate the Mormon way of life and break his personal rules: “Because life is just one unending stream of extenuating circumstances. Had I crossed the line that one time, I would have done it over and over and over in the years that followed.”

Willpower is Character in Action

Christensen’s team, however, played without him and won the basketball championship.

'How Will You Measure Your Life' by Clayton M. Christensen (ISBN 0062102419) Discussing this experience in writings such as How Will You Measure Your Life? (2012,) Christensen says,

Many of us have convinced ourselves that we are able to break our own personal rules “just this once.” In our minds, we can justify these small choices. None of those things, when they first happen, feels like a life-changing decision. The marginal costs are almost always low. But each of those decisions can roll up into a much bigger picture, turning you into the kind of person you never wanted to be.

If you give in to “just this once,” based on a marginal-cost analysis, you’ll regret where you end up. That’s the lesson I learned: it’s easier to hold to your principles 100 percent of the time than it is to hold to them 98 percent of the time. The boundary—your personal moral line—is powerful because you don’t cross it; if you have justified doing it once, there’s nothing to stop you doing it again.

For Christenson, the opportunity cost of missing the championship game was large. Therefore, the marginal cost of breaking his rules “just this once” was comparatively trivial. However, the bigger damage of yielding to demands of the circumstances was larger yet, given his religious devotion.

Idea for Impact: Life becomes so much simpler if you decide what you stand for, stick with your values 100% the time, and make no exceptions.

It’s easy to lose your emotional footing and resist temptations, especially when you feel pressured or depressed, or face some other persuasive incentive.

It’s easy to unearth some justification to infringe a little upon your principles or break commitments you’ve made to yourself.

However, conceding “just once” is a slippery slope—the proverbial thin end of a wedge. If you allow yourself to compromise just the once, you can wind up doing it frequently.

In contrast, if you make up your mind to follow 100% on some standard, all of your prospective decisions are made.

Life becomes so much easier when you no longer need to expend your willpower on internal moral deliberations or justify/ regret your poor choices.

Realize the Truth Yourself

So much of what you’ll hear and what you’re taught may turn out to be incorrect on closer scrutiny.

Whether it’s advice from the experts, what you hear in the media, or what your mother told you, if it is of any consequence, take the time to work out for yourself whether it is factual.

Swami Vivekananda on Realizing the Truth Yourself The great Hindu spiritual leader Swami Vivekananda (1863–1902) once instructed, “Do not believe in a thing because you have read about it in a book. Do not believe in a thing because another man has said it was true. Do not believe in words because they are hallowed by tradition. Find out the truth for yourself. Reason it out. That is realization.”

Idea for Impact: It’s not sensible to believe any assertion unless you have good reason for doing so. If you care whether your beliefs about the world are reliable, you must establish them on the sound, relevant evidence. Until you can organize that evidence and determine whether a belief is true or isn’t, you must suspend your judgment. The celebrated British mathematician, logician, and political activist Bertrand Russell (1872–1970) wrote in Why Men Fight: A Method of Abolishing the International Duel (1917,)

Men fear thought as they fear nothing else on earth—more than ruin, more even than death. Thought is subversive and revolutionary, destructive and terrible; thought is merciless to privilege, established institutions, and comfortable habits; thought is anarchic and lawless, indifferent to authority, careless of the well-tried wisdom of the ages. Thought looks into the pit of hell and is not afraid.

Stop Trying to Prove Yourself to the World

When you assess your life and become conscious of how you look at the world and how you look at yourself, you may realize that you often obsess about what people think of you.

'Seeds for a Boundless Life' by Blanche Hartman (ISBN 1611802849) In the delightful and poignant Seeds for a Boundless Life: Zen Teachings from the Heart, the Soto Zen teacher Blanche Hartman (1926–2016) explains that freeing yourself from being controlled by what other people think is the key to living life with a composed and peaceful mind:

I noticed somewhere in the early years of my [Buddhist] practice that my big effort was to get people to love me. I really wanted people to love me. And what I discovered in practice was that it really didn’t matter what other people thought. The one whose love and appreciation and approval I wanted was right here, and I wouldn’t give it to myself. What I found out was that no matter how much approval I got from outside, it didn’t count if I was not able to appreciate myself and be willing to be who I am. Whatever this is, it has becomes this over an accumulation of the actions of body, speech, and mind of more than eighty years. It’s my creation in a way. And yet it’s really helpful if I acknowledge it and befriend this being that I have created with the help of all the beings with whom I have shared my life.

Be Your Own Person

Stop trying to prove yourself to the naysayers and critics. Avoid assertive behavior and insubordinate conduct that intends to prove you’re worthy to others. You don’t need others’ approval.

Idea for Impact: Don’t fritter away precious time and energy seeking to prove your worth and worrying that you could fall short. The right people will love you for who you are.

The Power of Counterintuitive Thinking

“The All-embracing quality of the great virtue follows alone from the Tao … Only with Tao can follow the right path,” wrote Laozi in Tao Te Ching.

Translated roughly as “the way of integrity,” the Tao Te Ching is mostly a work of maxims of varying length; but it frequently quotes traditional poems, songs, and hymns.

'Tao Te Ching' by Stephen Mitchell (ISBN 0061142662) While the normative meaning of the word ‘Tao’ is just “path” or “way,” the text’s dominant theme is the spirit or quality of mind one needs to cultivate.

Here’s a verse from Tao Te Ching that advocates the power of counterintuitive thinking:

A good soldier is never aggressive;
A good fighter is never angry.
 
The best way of conquering an enemy
Is to win him over by not antagonizing him.
 
The best way of employing a man
Is to serve under him.
 
This is called the virtue of non-striving!
This is called using the abilities of men!
This is called being wedded to Heaven as of old!

Moral Self-Licensing: Do Good Deeds Make People Act Bad?

When People Do Something ‘Good’ They Feel Licensed to Do Something ‘Bad’ Later

Ethical moral self-licensing » When People Do Something 'Good' They Feel Licensed to Do Something 'Bad' Later Being—and being seen—as moral, ethical, and principled is an important part of people’s self-concept.

Social psychologists have studied the tendency of people using their prior moral actions to license future morally questionable actions. According to these studies, prior to making morally important decisions, people may survey their previous moral actions. If they recollect engaging in virtuous moral behavior in the past, they may subsequently become less bothered about engaging in morally questionable behavior.

Prior Actions Can Affect Individuals’ Future Behavior

Past good deeds can license people to engage in behaviors that are immoral, unethical, if not problematic—behaviors that they would otherwise avoid for fear of feeling or appearing immoral. The deep-seated human tendency that makes people feel entitled to do something less moral because they’ve done something moral previously is called “moral self-licensing.”

Psychologists reason that people’s previous actions may cause them to feel more self-possessed in their own moral self-worth. As a result, this claim licenses their choice of a more self-indulgent moral choice.

Conversely, when people appear immoral or devious to others, they subsequently take up positive actions to restore their moral image. Psychologists identify this as “compensation or cleansing.”

When ‘Good’ Behavior Supposedly Counteracts Doing Something ‘Bad’

Moral self-licensing has been demonstrated in several realms of human judgment. However, in my opinion, much of the cause-and-effect narratives seem ambiguous. For instance,

  • In a set of pioneering studies, participants who established their racial non-prejudiced attitudes by endorsing President Obama or through selecting a black person for a consulting firm job were subsequently more likely to make pro-white decisions.
  • In one test, after subjects were given a chance to condemn sexist statements, they were found to be subsequently more likely to support hiring a man in a male-dominated profession.
  • One study on consumer behavior suggested that shoppers who brought their own bags felt licensed to buy more junk food.

Contribution Ethic and “Prospective Moral Licensing”

A phenomenon related to moral self-licensing is “contribution ethic” or the “moral credential effect.” When people feel they’ve done their fair share for some noble cause, they decide they need do no more. In one study, after people participated in a pro-social deeds (e.g., doing something good for the cause of the environment,) they felt licensed to behave more selfishly later (e.g., donating less to an environmental program). Another study showed that people who drive hybrid cars tend to get more tickets and cause more accidents than do drivers of conventional cars.

Some studies have suggested that just thinking about past moral behavior or writing about oneself as a moral person can decrease the likelihood of subsequently performing altruistic acts—such as decreasing contributions to charitable causes or being less engaging in cooperative behavior towards friends and colleagues.

Finally, simply planning to do good later can allow people to be bad now. Some studies suggest that when people merely plan to engage in a moral behavior in the future, they feel licensed to respond in a morally questionable way in the present. Psychologists identify this as “prospective moral licensing.”

Idea for Impact: Past Moral Deeds Could Make People Do Morally Wrong Things

Part of becoming wise to the ways of the world and getting along with people is understanding the many peculiarities of human behavior. Learning why people feel licensed to engage in potentially immoral behavior given their demonstrated moral behavior allows for a better understanding of the world in which we live.

Anger is the Hardest of the Negative Emotions to Subdue

Anger is the Hardest of the Negative Emotions to Subdue

The Lekha Sutta, an aphorism of the historical Buddha that has been preserved orally by his followers, identifies three distinct ways that anger manifests in individuals:

  • Firstly, the Buddha refers to the individual who is like an inscription on a rock. His anger stays with him for a long time; it does not war away by wind or water.
  • Secondly, the Buddha relates an individual who is habitually angered, but whose anger does not stay with him for a elongated time, to an inscription in soil that rubs away by wind or water.
  • Finally, the Buddha identifies an individual who is like water. When he is spoken to or treated rudely, he stays impervious, pleasant, and courteous—in the vein of an inscription in water that disappears right away.

Here’s a translation of the Lekha Sutta from the Pali by the eminent American Buddhist monk and prolific author Thanissaro Bhikkhu:

Monks, there are these three types of individuals to be found existing in the world. Which three? An individual like an inscription in rock, an individual like an inscription in soil, and an individual like an inscription in water.

And how is an individual like an inscription in rock? There is the case where a certain individual is often angered, and his anger stays with him a long time. Just as an inscription in rock is not quickly effaced by wind or water and lasts a long time, in the same way a certain individual is often angered, and his anger stays with him a long time. This is called an individual like an inscription in rock.

'Dhammapada: A Translation' by Thanissaro Bhikkhu (ISBN B000K6C8NG) And how is an individual like an inscription in soil? There is the case where a certain individual is often angered, but his anger doesn’t stay with him a long time. Just as an inscription in soil is quickly effaced by wind or water and doesn’t last a long time, in the same way a certain individual is often angered, but his anger doesn’t stay with him a long time. This is called an individual like an inscription in soil.

And how is an individual like an inscription in water? There is the case where a certain individual—when spoken to roughly, spoken to harshly, spoken to in an unpleasing way—is nevertheless congenial, companionable, & courteous. Just as an inscription in water immediately disappears and doesn’t last a long time, in the same way a certain individual—when spoken to roughly, spoken to harshly, spoken to in an unpleasing way—is nevertheless congenial, companionable, & courteous. This is called an individual like an inscription in water.

These are the three types of individuals to be found existing in the world.

Idea for Impact: Learn to Corral Your Anger and Manage Your Emotions

Like everything else in the world, anger surfaces and passes away, restoring your previous sense of calm and stillness. Not identifying the nature of anger and allowing it to take over your state of being can lead to disastrous outcomes. Verse 222 of the Dhammapada (tr. Thanissaro Bhikkhu) states,

When anger arises,
whoever keeps firm control
as if with a racing chariot:
him
I call a master charioteer.
    Anyone else,
    a rein-holder—
    that’s all.

Anger destroys careers. It destroys relationships. As long as you lack the capacity to withstand negative emotions such as anger, you will be at a marked disadvantage in life.