Posted by: Martin | May 21, 2011

Ivorian presidents and the problem with power

Third time lucky?

With Ouattara’s installation today, I started thinking that the two previous heads of state of the Ivory Coast (and maybe Bédié too) seemed quite reasonable and idealistic before accessing power, but then seemed to be transformed by being in power and starting to desire to stay president for the power itself and the advantages it brings – at any cost.

It's good to be President

A while ago I quoted a speech by Vaclav Havel where he describes this process, talking about three different reasons for desiring political power:  idealism, self affirmation and longing for power for the perks it brings.  Havel says that the third type deserves special attention mentioning the  diabolical temptations of power in this sphere, and saying that “This is best observed among those of us who have never held power of any kind before.”

Ouattara has already held positions of power, but that doesn’t mean he is immune, just that the process of wanting power for its own sake is less easily observable.  However, I’m not too worried Ouattara will go down the route of Guei and Gbagbo – the Ivory Coast had bad luck with these two, and the temptations of power process – while it affects everybody – usually doesn’t turn that nasty.

And I would guess being democratically elected and being in power in a democratic system with checks and balances is a bit of a counterbalance. Not that I’m too confident about current checks and balances in the Ivory Coast, but both Guei and Gbagbo in all likelihood ordered extra-judicial killings of quite a few of their own citizens, so it’s hard seeing it getting much worse.

Power and moral hypocrisy

I recently read about a psychological study that appears to confirm some of the problems with power Vaclav Havel was talking about.  Experimental data point to that power in itself causes people to act as if moral rules don’t apply to them, while still applying them to others:

New research from the Kellogg School of Management explores why powerful people — many of whom take a moral high ground — don’t practice what they preach.

In “Power Increases Hypocrisy: Moralizing in Reasoning, Immunity and Behavior,” Kellogg Professor Adam Galinsky and his co-researchers sought to determine whether power inspires hypocrisy — the tendency to hold high standards for others while performing morally suspect behaviors oneself. The research finds that power makes people stricter in moral judgment of others, while being less strict with regard to their own behavior.

Five experiments followed in which researchers examined the impact of power on the moral hypocrisy of the participants. They found a consistent and alarming outcome:  those assigned to the ‘high-power’ group repeatedly condemned moral failures of others while committing unethical acts themselves. In one experiment, high-power participants were asked for their positions on cheating and over-reporting travel expenses, both of which they flatly condemned.  They and the low-power group were then asked to play a dice game alone, in a private cubicle, to win lottery tickets. The powerful reported significantly higher lottery winnings than the low-power group, even though both groups had the same odds of winning.

Three additional experiments further examined the degree to which powerful people accept their own moral transgressions versus those committed by others. In all cases, those assigned to high-power roles showed significant moral hypocrisy by more strictly judging others for speeding, dodging taxes and keeping a stolen bike, while finding it more acceptable to engage in these behaviors themselves.

Suddenly, it feels the world makes a lot more sense.  This seems to explain not only Ivorian Presidents’ actions, but also the likes of Elliot Spitzer and Dominique Strauss Kahn.

UPDATE:  Found an article in Wired from this week that also connects the Galinsky study with DSK:  How Power Corrupts

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