Saturday, December 18, 2010

Can leaders make us do bad things?

The most common factor in who we choose as a leader is charisma.  We base important decisions on who to follow based on how we feel.  This makes it extraordinarily easy for our leaders to persuade us to do things we normally wouldn't.    That ability is the core of leader's power.  This is not a secret to politicians.

I was just reviewing the book Moral Leadership, specifically the chapter on the psychology of power by Philip G. Zimbardo.  "The same mind that creates the most beautiful works of art and extraordinary marvels of technology is equally responsible for perversion of its own perfection."  His chapter delves into how good, regular people can be persuaded to do evil things.

Evil (by his definition)- behaving or causing people to act in demeaning, dehumanizing, harming, destroying or the killing of innocent people. 

How do leaders use power to persuade people to do evil things?

First of all, as the book makes clear, evil is not the associated with specific kind of people, or a specific person, but rather the result of permissible social constructs and situations.  Evil is more prevalent in situations of power (where moral code has less of a role in actions) and in situations where there is a sense of anonymity and/or a sense of crisis.  

Within these constructs a powerful person may:
1. Offer an ideology that justifies any means to a desired goal.
2. Arrange a contractual obligation (may be verbal)
3. Give participants meaningful roles to play with familiar positive values and response scripts
4. Present basic, vague rules to be followed
5. Replace reality with desirable rhetoric
6. Create opportunities to diffuse responsibility, so actor does not feel accountable
7. Start path toward evil act with small step
8. Gradually increase acts upon evil act
9. Change authority from 'just' to 'unjust' and demanding which causes confusion and obedience
10. Make exit costs high, but allow dissent

Of course, good people would need to abandon their sense of humanity and morality to engage in evil acts.

Conditions in which we may do so:
1. Altered perception of evil through moral justification, comforting rhetoric, euphemistic labeling.
2. Altered sense of consequence through minimizing, ignoring, misconstruing consequences
3. Displacing/diffusing responsibility
4. Dehumanizing/blaming victim

According to Zimbardo, leaders would use two main strategies to get followers conditioned is to
1.  Again, reduce social accountability "creating an environment that masks identity and diffuses responsibility across others in a situation."
2.  Stop self-monitoring by altering consciousness through strong emotions, hyperintense activity, and/or drugs.

The result of this evil power manipulation is the suspension of cognitive controls that guide moral action.  That is how leaders get good people to do bad things.   

Have Republicans taken us down an evil path?  I argue they have.  From the war in Iraq to a fight against fellow Americans in our own country. 

1.  Ideology:  They have used the 'War of Terrorism' to create a sense of crisis in which national security is the goal for which any means necessary will be used. 

2.  Diffused Responsibility: They have created the Tea Party, which is a social movement 'without any leader' and now say that their actions are on behalf of 'the people'.

3. Use moral justifications: they routinely act under the auspice of G-d and Christianity.

4. Have created a hyper partisan atmosphere: labeling Obama as a Socialist/Muslim/non-citizen, and anyone who does not prescribe to their ideology as un-American.

I could go on analyzing each step of the above framework and how Republicans could be following this framework, but I will leave it here, with the most obvious boldly stated. 

In the political/cultural atmosphere of today, we should all be mindful of the winds that sway our opinions and actions. 

The book also says that people, when put into power, will have their characters magnified, i.e. people who act in self-interest are will only act more so when put into power, and those who are more prone to help others will be even more dedicated to public welfare when in power.  So, next time you vote, look and see how much that leader has helped the communities and people around them.

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