George Washington famously didn’t want to become the president of the United States, but he accepted the job and performed it well. That’s how people should feel about important leadership positions, according to how political scientist Brian Klaas thinks about the role of power in society.
Klaas says that power should be a burden on people because leaders have to make decisions that will ultimately have negative consequences for many people. One problem: some humans don’t care about those consequences. And, according to Klaas, our institutions don’t do a very good job of screening these people out of important leadership spots.
Klaas suggests implementing psychological screening for top jobs, asking questions to determine why someone seeks power, and identifying whether they are in it for themselves or for the greater good. These measures can help to ensure that the right people are in positions of power, whether that means leading a company, governing a nation, or handling nuclear weapons.
BRIAN KLAAS: I think that power should be a burden to ordinary people. I think it should actually be costly in the sense of psychology.
In other words, if you think that power is easy and fun, you're the wrong person for the job because everybody at the highest levels of power is, no matter what they do, ruining some lives and making some other lives much better- it's a distributional choice.
If you're the president of a country or if you're the CEO in charge of a major corporation, your decisions affect people's lives for better or worse. And some of those effects are catastrophic. You should have to live with that; it should weigh on you.
If it doesn't weigh on you, you haven't done your job right, you have not developed a system in which the psychological distance you face is actually at the right level. Understand that the consequences of your decision are affecting real people.
So psychopaths can't be fixed in this regard. No matter how much a psychopath gets to know somebody, they just don't care about them. So if you have a psychopath in charge, psychological distance doesn't solve the problem.
For everyone else, it's a key ingredient in making sure that you perform better if you end up in a position of leadership.
The 'dark triad' traits are really interesting because you can disaggregate them into their three parts: which are Machiavellianism, narcissism, and psychopathy, being a psychopath. These traits can occur in elevated levels in isolation.
So you could just be somebody who's more Machiavellian than the rest of the population. You could just be more narcissistic. And there's some really interesting findings when you actually control for them in isolation.
Machiavellian people tend to be better at getting power. They tend to be better at getting power because they're strategic thinkers. They're people who have a game plan. They start to think, "How can I get to my goal?" And if they're disciplined, you can control your impulses. You can think into the future, you can strategize. So Machiavellianism alone is probably actually helpful for getting power.
Narcissists are different again. Narcissists, if they occur in isolation, can actually help you make more money. And the reason for that is because narcissists are hyper-attuned to what other people think of them. Advancement in hierarchies often can depend on how much other people like you. Narcissists are good at making people like them.
The evidence seems to suggest that narcissism in isolation can be helpful for improving your paycheck even though it might not be the best thing for making good decisions 'cause you have a warped view of what's the most important- and for narcissists, the most important thing is themself.
Psychopathy, on its own, without the Machiavellian, narcissistic component is reasonably rare, they tend to correlate. But when you do have people who are just psychopaths, they're more impulsive, and they're more willing to take risks than other people. As a result of that, you tend to have lots of unsuccessful psychopaths. The successful ones who make it, who survive, they're not good at wielding power, but they they are often pretty good at obtaining it because they are power hungry.
So a psychopath, in isolation, is not someone you want in charge of a company. It is not as bad to have somebody who's just Machiavellian or as bad to have someone who's just narcissistic. But for the most part, if you're high on the psychopathy score, you're usually pretty high on the narcissism and Machiavellian score as well. While these things can be studied independently, the areas of power that we're most interested in tend to be clustered around those with the dark triad.
Depending on the study you look at, psychopaths are between four times and a hundred times more represented in positions of power than everybody else. We've clearly got this all wrong. We have clearly designed systems that are not doing an effective job at screening these people out or weeding them out once they get into power.
As a result of that, we have people in power who have no business being there at a much greater rate than the general population.
So I firmly believe in democracy, which means I think elections are essential and a vibrant part of choosing leaders.
I think there are a few things we can do to make them function better, both in the scrutiny process, and after someone has come to power. So the first thing is I think we should have some psychological screening at the top jobs.
I think that there should be an expectation that people who are about to control nuclear weapons that can literally wipe out our species should at a minimum, be subject to a psychological test.
I wish there was a certain question that was asked to people who wanted to wield immense amount of power. And that question is this: "What would it take for you to think that you are no longer necessary in power?"
In other words, what is the goal that you want to achieve with your power that if you were to achieve it, you would think it's time to step down.
It's not that we should just think about psychological tests, we should also do sort of less scientific psychological evaluations that are probed via questions that try to get at the core of why someone is seeking power; exposing those who are power hungry, or in it for the wrong reasons.
So the idea here is that you have to think carefully about screening people who are seeking power. You have to have psychological tests for the highest levels of power. And you also have to ask questions of people that would expose whether they're in it for the sake of power or they're in it for themselves.
And far too often people are in it for themselves, and psychological tests would expose the fact that they are people who are not the ones that you want at the helm of a company or a country, or with the sole control of nuclear weapons.
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