Oftentimes these ministers of darkness tell us truths in little things, to betray us into deeds of greatest consequence. - Charles Lamb
There’s one group which can easily keep the enemy at a distance: the leaders. While soldiers tend to be ordinary people, their leaders are a different story. We seem to be societies of altruists led by sociopaths. In his autobiography I. Asimov: A Memoir, Isaac Asimov tells of his decision to major in zoology in graduate school which he calls an '"incredible mistake'. He says that he had to dissect various creatures, an activity that he disliked intensely but grew used to. Once he had to kill a cat.
Like a fool, I did it. After all, I was only following the orders of my superior, like any Nazi functionary in the death camps. But I never recovered. That killed cat lives with me, and to this day, over half a century later, when I think of it, I double up in misery. I dropped zoology at the completion of the year.
Leaders seem to be able to get rid of the killed cat from their memories much more easily than the rest of us can. Four percent of us are born sociopaths, though they are over-represented among criminals, bankers, lawyers and politicians. (I’m not joking.) ‘The abuse of greatness is when it disjoins remorse from power,’ said Brutus in William Shakespeare’s play, Julius Caesar. The commanders of armies and of terrorist organisations who hand down orders don’t have to stifle feelings of empathy for their opponent. Many leaders have been manipulative and egocentric, rarely troubled by feelings of compassion or doubt.
An example was seen during the Christmas truce during WWII Among the units which observed the cease-fire, not all men approved of the decision. An obscure corporal named Adolf Hitler, who, as a dispatch runner for regimental headquarters, rarely went as far as the forward trenches, sharply criticized the behaviour of men in his regiment who had opted to join the British in No Man’s Land. “Such a thing should not happen in wartime,” he is reported to have said. “Have you no German sense of honour?”
In the days following Christmas, violence returned to the Western Front after officers’ threats of court-martial. While the truce could not have succeeded without the endorsement of junior officers on both sides, British and German generals quickly took steps to prevent any further episodes of fraternization between their men. Still, there were no courts-martial or punishments linked to the events of the Christmas Truce; senior commanders likely recognized the disastrous effect that such a move would have on morale in the trenches. It never happened again, as even brief Christmas truces to retrieve the dead led to court-martials.
Even for normal people, power poses a challenge. Having power feels good but enjoying the delights of power too much lead to impulsive, unethical action and delusional thought. The power paradox is always close by. Machiavelli’s saying “It is better to be feared than loved” is the most widely known maxim about power, Lord Acton’s “Power tends to corrupt and absolute power corrupts absolutely” is a close second. Experiments have shown that first is largely untrue while second is very much operational.
We have a deep cultural intuition that nice guys finish last, that one must step on others to rise in the ranks, and that acquiring power requires the cold-blooded removal of rivals and even allies. But nothing could be further from the truth. Social psychologists have studied who rises in power in different arenas like financial firms, hospitals, and manufacturing plants. The strongest predictor of those who acquired power were enthusiasm, kindness, focus, calmness, and openness. Then how come we have so many disagreeable leaders?
The problem seems to be that the experience of having power sows the seeds of destruction. Power makes us feel less dependent upon others thus making us shift our focus away from others to our own goals and desires. As our empathy wanes, so does our capacity for moral sentiments that depend on empathy — concern for others’ suffering (compassion), reverence for what others give (gratitude), and inspiration experienced in appreciating others’ goodness (elevation). This makes us distance ourselves from those we believe to be below us and tell stories that divide and demean.
There is a kind of brain trauma that goes by the name “acquired sociopathy” caused by damage to the frontal parts of the brain due to an accident. Such accidents can transform upstanding, kind people into sociopaths, prone to expressing self-serving impulses like shouting profanities at their kids, shoplift, go on spending sprees etc. (The most famous of such patients in neurological history was Phineas Gage.)
Experiences of power and privilege are like a form of brain damage, leading us to self-serving, impulsive behaviour. Experiments show that the powerful feel entitled to take more than their fair share, to endorse more impulsive, unethical behaviour, apparently neglecting the effects of their actions upon others. People feeling powerful were more likely to say it’s okay to not pay taxes, and that there’s nothing wrong with over-reporting travel expenses or speeding on highways.
Michael Lewis addressed Princeton students by describing an experiment conducted by psychologists at the University of California at Berkeley. The researchers sent volunteer subjects into small rooms in same-sex groups of three and gave them a complex moral problem to resolve, such as what to do about an episode of cheating on an exam. Arbitrarily, they assigned one member of each group as its leader. Thirty minutes into each team’s deliberations, a researcher entered the room with a plate bearing four cookies for the three volunteers.
Who ate the extra cookie? In each case, it was the leader of the group, even though, as Lewis notes, “He had no special virtue. He’d been chosen at random, 30 minutes earlier. His status was nothing but luck. But it still left him with the sense that the cookie should be his.' As Dacher Keltner writes in The Power Paradox: How We Ge Gain and Lose Influence:
Lord Acton’s thesis prevails. 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.
Absolute power does indeed corrupt absolutely. The experience of power destroys the skills that gained us power in the first place.