Psychology of Elected Representatives: Part 2
From "The Trouble With Elections: Everything We Thought We Knew About Democracy is Wrong," Chapter 9.7
It may sound like negative stereotyping, but social psychologists have repeatedly found that high status, wealthy individuals (like most members of Congress) are significantly more likely to engage in selfish or unethical behavior than are middle and lower class individuals. Numerous independent experiments conducted at the University of California, Berkeley are instructive in this regard. Studies, by Paul Piff and others published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, for example, found that when participants in a waiting room were told they could have “one or two” pieces of candy from a bowl identified as being for children, that upper class subjects on average took twice as much candy as participants from lower classes. In another study, upper class drivers (easily identified by their luxury automobiles) were four times more likely than other drivers to cut off other vehicles at a busy four-way intersection, and three times less likely to stop for a pedestrian waiting to use a crosswalk. This result has been replicated in studies by other researchers.1 In yet another experiment, groups of subjects played a computerized dice rolling game, in which the participant with the highest score would win a cash prize. The game was secretly rigged so that it was impossible to score above a 12, but upper class individuals were significantly more likely to cheat and report scores that were impossible to achieve.
Yet, an experiment conducted by University of Michigan professor Leigh Tost published in the journal Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes in 2015 suggests that when participants are put in powerful roles and are reminded of the impact of their actions on the future well-being of others, they often behave more generously — a sort of noblesse oblige. Of course, generosity may be exercised in a benign or corrupt, unethical manner (such as through favoritism). So, while the overall tendency is clear, rather than corruption being an absolute side effect of power, the circumstances and context (longevity, visibility, magnitude, etc.) also matter.
Brian Klaas observes in his book Corruptible: Who Gets Power and How It Changes Us that some individuals are more easily corruptible than others, some situations offer more opportunities and incentives for corruption than others, and some systems generate a culture of corruption, including elevating the more corruptible, while others do not. As Klaas summarizes his findings:
“Corruptible people are drawn to power. They’re often better at getting it. We, as humans, are drawn to following the wrong leaders for irrational reasons linked to our Stone Age brains. Bad systems make everything worse.”
Rather than being a check on corruption, due to the allure of power and voter rational ignorance and other factors, elections are more likely to elevate more corruptible people, who are then enticed to resort to more corruption to maintain and concentrate power. Long “service” through regular reelection allows them to build their corruption skills and self-justifications, while also perfecting techniques for hiding their corruption from the public. The concentration of power in electoral systems grants elected representatives extraordinary opportunities to execute corruption, often with dire consequences. Corrupt behavior does not need to be illegal for it to be deeply harmful to the community.
However, it is possible to mitigate this hubris effect by changing the way representatives or leaders are selected. In experiments, it has been shown that introducing random selection into the selection process can reduce the self-congratulatory hubris, and unethical behavior. Researchers at German and and Swiss universities found that procedures like those of the Italian city republics (discussed earlier) with alternating rounds of competition, combined with random selection to either generate a final pool of applicants, or to make the ultimate selection, appear to reduce these negative psychological effects without hurting competence.
Effect on Deliberation
Another negative aspect of leaving political decisions to elected representatives has to do with the psychological impact of deliberating within a competitive “us/them” environment. It is generally assumed that hearing other people’s perspectives on controversial issues can open participants to compromise and cooperation, and indeed this is sometimes the case. However, Prof. Adam Galinsky and others have found that feelings of power make individuals less inclined, and less able to consider others’ perspectives. But more – when “perspective sharing” occurs within a competitive framework where members may anticipate threats from opponents (as in a partisan legislature), it can actually have the reverse effect. As Galinsky states,
“When you’re in a cold state, perspective taking can warm you to cooperation. But when you’re in an inflamed state, thinking about the other person’s mind changes perspective taking from the glue that binds us together to the gasoline that worsens the competitive fire.”
Galinsky’s experiments showed that when negotiators in a competitive environment were prompted to think about the other person through perspective taking they tended to focus on the possible ploys of the opponents, and were more likely to act unethically themselves. This unethical proclivity wasn’t even restricted to dealing with the opponent, but adversely influenced behavior in unrelated activities, such as lying to an experimenter about how well they performed on some other task having nothing to do with the negotiation. Experimental psychology has also shown that people who feel powerful are more likely than others to rely on intuition (system 1 thinking in Kahneman’ s terminology), and less likely to engage in careful rational analysis. People with great power seem more prone to rely on their gut and feel the “correct” answer to problems.
A study of 700 U.S. citizens published by University of Cambridge researchers in 2019 found that partisan extremists, whether Democrats or Republicans, tended to exhibit less cognitive flexibility than the general population. Three different assessment tools of psychological rigidity all showed the same dynamic, revealing greater rigidity of partisans (whether of the left or right) in processing non-political information as well. Thus this cognitive infirmity runs deeper than mere confirmation bias regarding partisan policies. The study couldn’t show causation, so it is still an open question whether adopting firmer political beliefs makes people less cognitively flexible, or if people who are less cognitively flexible tend to adopt more adamant political views. But whether a cause or an effect, the result is that those who are extreme partisans, and are motivated to run for office, bring along a weakness when it comes to processing information.
Once a world-view or belief is deeply adopted, whether religious, political, or otherwise, evidence that undermines or would even disprove that belief (in the mind of an impartial observer) is often denied by the believer as being invalid evidence. Indeed, when faced with contrary evidence, true believers often strengthen their commitment to the questionable belief. Many psychological studies over the past several decades have confirmed this dynamic. An extreme example of this, carefully studied by psychologists, was a cult that believed that an alien spaceship would come and carry them away on a specific date. After that date came and went (a rather formidable piece of contrary evidence), while some members abandoned the group, the most committed, who had given away their worldly possessions, redoubled their commitment, and developed a reinterpretation of the prophecy, or date, in order to avoid cognitive dissonance.
It is astonishing how much mental gymnastics we are all able to perform, in order to cling to preconceived world-views when contrary evidence surfaces. Of course, each of us is unable to recognize this dynamic in ourselves — assuming this is a trait that only others exhibit. Political partisans, and especially elected officials, often fit this “true-believer” mold, where no amount of contrary evidence can shake their belief in various fundamental partisan canards. And, of course, with the Internet today, it is easy to seek out and find “information” that can shore up nonsensical beliefs. A randomly allotted legislative body would naturally include members who exhibit this same psychological propensity. However, the crucial difference is that in addition to being less prominent, their “false beliefs'' would be randomly distributed rather than fall along predefined partisan axes. So rather than settling into two, or a few, insurmountable ideological fortresses, the body as a whole could learn, and abandon policies that have a preponderance of countervailing evidence, even while a few members persist in the kind of mental somersaults typical of partisan politicians.
Such studies also found that drivers of “eco-friendly” cars such as the hybrid Prius when it first came out, were also less likely to stop for pedestrians. This may be for other reasons, such as: by doing good for the planet such drivers have a feeling of being more “worthy,” or perhaps they have an obsession with energy efficiency, with a full stop and start feeling too “wasteful.”