Brian Klaas is an associate professor of global politics at University College London and a columnist for the Washington Post, where he frequently comments on U.S. foreign policy and democratization. For his latest and fourth book exploring the acquisition and repercussions of power, he traveled around the globe and interviewed more than 500 powerful people—from CEOs to cult leaders—and scoured the world for experts who research power, such as neuroscientists, behavioral economists, and anthropologists.
Below, Klaas shares five key insights from his new book, Corruptible: Who Gets Power and How It Changes Us. Listen to the audio version—read by Klaas himself—in the Next Big Idea App.
1. Power doesn’t just corrupt—it attracts the corruptible.
We’ve all heard Lord Acton’s famous aphorism: power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely. Lord Acton was correct, but that’s just the tip of the iceberg. Many of you will have heard of the Stanford Prison Experiment, but you’re probably missing its real lesson.
In 1971, a Stanford professor named Philip Zimbardo built a fake jail on campus. He then put out an advertisement, recruiting volunteers for a psychology study on prison life. When student volunteers arrived, they were sorted into prisoners and prison guards. What happened next is well-known: the guards, just by virtue of donning the uniform, became abusive. The conventional wisdom was that demons lurk within all of us, just waiting to be unleashed by power.
In 2007, researchers replicated the experiment. Except this time, they used two versions of the advertisement to recruit volunteers in different college towns. The first version asked for volunteers for a psychology study of prison life. The second version asked for volunteers for a psychology study. The people who responded to the prison study advertisement scored far higher on abusive, power-hungry personality traits than those who responded to the generic ad. The real lesson isn’t that power corrupts; it’s that power attracts the corruptible. But there’s another wrinkle: the system matters, too.
One study asked students to roll a die 42 times. The more sixes someone rolled, the more money they would be given. It was all down to luck. But there was a twist: the scores were self-reported, so the students could lie. Some did. One man even claimed he had rolled 42 sixes in a row. When they evaluated the students who lied about their die rolls in India, where the civil service is corrupt, they found that the cheaters were disproportionately planning to enter the civil service, where they could extract bribes. When they re-ran the same experiment in Denmark, where the system is clean, the relationship was inverted. The honest students wanted to go into the civil service.
Power is magnetic to the corruptible everywhere, but good systems attract better leaders, and bad systems attract rotten leaders.
2. To get better leaders, focus more on who doesn’t seek power.
World War II wasn’t just won by generals and soldiers; it was also won with the help of statisticians. One statistician, a man named Abraham Wald, was asked by generals from the Allied forces where they should reinforce the armor on fighter planes. They showed him a bunch of planes that had come back from Germany riddled with bullet holes. Some had holes in the wings. Others had holes in the nose. And still others had holes in the tail. Where do you think Wald should have told them to reinforce: wings, nose, or tail?
If you said “wings, nose, or tail,” you would have accidentally killed many airmen. What Wald realized was that the planes with bullet holes were the planes that survived. They were able to keep flying. The ones that had been shot elsewhere, in the engine for example, were flaming wrecks. Had it not been for Wald, the generals would have reinforced the bits of the plane that least needed reinforcement.
Similarly, don’t just focus on the leaders we have, the ones you see. Focus on the leaders we don’t have–the ones who never sought or obtained power in the first place. That’s the path to a society governed by better people. As the great novelist Douglas Adams put it: “It is a well-known fact that those people who must want to rule people are, ipso facto, those least suited to do it.” Some people are drawn to power like moths to a flame. But if we know that disproportionately abusive people are drawn to power, how can we counteract that?
I spoke with the head of recruitment for New Zealand’s national police force. She told me that certain kinds of people are irresistibly drawn to the power that comes with having a badge and a gun, and those people are often the most abusive, least compassionate cops. She helped design an outreach program called “Do You Care Enough to Be a Cop?” The recruitment videos feature police officers who don’t fit into the demographic stereotype of policing. They’re also extremely funny, featuring a series of gags that made the videos go viral. At the end of one, a female police officer catches up with the unseen perpetrator she’s been chasing. It’s a border collie who had stolen someone’s purse.
It worked. By focusing on people who don’t naturally seek and want power, their application numbers soared, the diversity in the force rose drastically, and police abuse fell.
3. We select leaders for irrational reasons.
Several years ago, scientists conducted a study in which they showed children two faces and asked them to select one face to be the captain of an imaginary ship in a computer game. What the kids didn’t know was that the faces weren’t randomly assigned; one was the winner of a French election and the other was the person who came in second place. But what happened was astonishing—the vast majority of children selected as their captain the person who won the election. When they re-ran the study with adults, they found something similar. It gave fresh, literal meaning to taking someone at face value.
It also tells us something about the irrational ways we decide who will be in charge. Take “strongmen” for example. The term is no accident. When researchers ask people to select a leader in a simulation, there are plenty of reasons why they choose a certain individual over others. But if they tell people that they need to pick someone during a time of crisis—a war or a famine or a pandemic, for example—then the participants drastically shifted their choice toward bigger, physically stronger men.
Evolutionary psychologists provide the answer. For the last 200,000 years or so, human brains haven’t changed that much. Our modern skulls house a Stone Age mind, yet our lifestyle has changed dramatically. While there may have been a survival advantage during times of crisis to following physically large men, that’s no longer true. But this still matters to us, totally irrationally. Think about why Vladimir Putin is often pictured shirtless. Now imagine anyone else in a position of authority doing the same—say, your dentist, taking his shirt off to perform twenty push-ups. You’d think he was insane. But these shows of strength continue because some leaders have recognized the power of our cognitive biases.
These cognitive mistakes extend—quite unfortunately—to racial and gender biases. To counteract these outdated cognitive errors, we must first recognize them and acknowledge that they exist.
4. Being second-in-command is often best.
There’s a saying that “it’s good to be king.” But is that really true? To find out, we can look to the world of non-human primates, such as baboons.
Scientists are able to measure the biological rate of aging within an individual—how fast one’s body is decaying—which is separate from time we measure on a calendar. What they found in baboon colonies has fascinating insights for us. As you might expect, baboons that were low on the hierarchy aged quickly. They didn’t have access to resources, and they were often stressed. As you climbed the hierarchy, the aging slowed. But then, something remarkable happened. The baboon at the top—the alpha male—aged extremely fast. He had access to all the resources he could want, but he also had a target on his back constantly, and that came with lots of stress. In one instance, a baboon aged the biological equivalent of three years in just 10 calendar months. Meanwhile, the baboons who were second- or third-in-command had the best of both worlds: lots of resources, but less stress.
Similar findings exist within human leaders. CEOs who shepherd their companies through crises age faster. When you compare people who became presidents or prime ministers to the people who they beat in the election, well, the winners got the power, but the runners-up got the last laugh: the presidents died 4.4 years earlier, on average, than their vanquished opponents.
5. Audit decision-making, not just results.
When I was an undergraduate, my college set up a bike-sharing program called Yellow Bikes. Students collected donated bikes, repaired them, spray painted them yellow, and then left them around campus unlocked for students to use. It worked brilliantly.
When my brother was an undergraduate, his college set-up a bike sharing program called Green Bikes. It was the same idea, except the bikes were spray painted green rather than yellow. On the first day of the program, a student grabbed all the green bikes and held a competition: who could fly furthest off a ramp into the river on campus. The bikes sank. The program ended.
If you had just looked at the Yellow Bikes program, you’d replicate it. If you had just looked at the Green Bikes program, you’d think it was a stupid idea. The point is that results can be misleading. Outcomes can, sometimes, be random. To avoid making mistakes, we need to focus on decision-making instead of results.
Take the Challenger space shuttle. It flew several times without blowing up, but all the warning signs were there. The earlier launches were seemingly a “success” because the astronauts made it back to Earth safely. But red flags were everywhere, and they were ignored. If NASA had held a commission to investigate the decision-making around the earlier Challenger launches, they would have caught the problems before it blew up.
Too often we have commissions that only investigate disasters, but we need commissions that investigate successes, too. What did they get right? How can we learn from it to prevent a future disaster? You should investigate decision-making that went well, or went badly. Better outcomes will inevitably follow.