Thursday, May 25, 2023

Review of Corruptible: Who Gets Power and How It Changes Us by Brian Klaas

This book review was written by Eugene Kernes

Book can be found in: 
Genre = Decision Making
Book Club Event = Book List (09/16/2023)
Intriguing Connections = 1) When Intelligence Goes Wrong, 2) The Persecuted and The Persecutors

Watch Short Review


“A corrupt system attracted corrupt students, and an honest system attracted honest students.  Perhaps it’s not about power changing people, but rather about the setting.  A good system can create a virtuous circle of ethical power seekers.  A bad system can create a vicious cycle of people willing to lie, cheat, and steal until they reach the top.  If that’s the case, then our focus shouldn’t be on powerful individuals – it should be on repairing our broken systems.” – Brian Klaas, Chapter I: Introduction, Page 22-23

“We also – let’s face it – end up with a lot of cruel, incompetent people in positions of authority.  At first glance, that’s a bit perplexing, because power is relational.  In other words, individuals can’t be powerful alone.  To become powerful, you need people to control.  Power is therefore given, not taken.” – Brian Klaas, Chapter IV: The Power Delusion, Page 74

“If you want to be healthy, increase how much control you have over your life whenever possible – particularly if you’re low on the social ladder, or you’re near the top of it.  But since most people can’t just wave a magic wand and find themselves more in control, the easier path is, if you’re going for that promotion, make sure it doesn’t come at the expense of those you care about and love.” – Brian Klaas, Chapter IX: How Power Changes Your Body, Page 191


Is This An Overview?

Power depends on having others to control.  Hierarchies can facilitate coordination and incentivize competition.  But people are constantly disappointed by those in power.  Understanding power is needed to redress the influence of power.  There are incorruptible people in power, those that are kind and honest.  It is the corruptible people who do a lot of damage.  Focus tends to go to those who sought power, got power, and retained power.  This a selection bias, called a survivorship bias as those that did not seek, get, and retain power are not considered.  Power needs to deter corruptible people in all three dimensions.  Not only are methods needed to be developed to prevent corruptible people from taking power, but also to develop methods for promoting incorruptible people to get into power.

Some people do become corrupted by power.  Initially helping others, but changing into someone who uses power to support only themselves.  Corruptible people do tend to seek out positions of power.  Should they get power, they will misuse power to keep hold of power.  Corruptible people are not the only ones who make bad decisions.  Bad decisions can come from honest and good people who are in a corrupt system.  It is an attribution error to blame an individual when it is the system that corrupts.  Those in positions of power do not necessarily have alternative options like everyone else.  Sometimes they need to make difficult choices in which there are no acceptable options.  People in power need to be held accountable, but their available choices need to be considered when judging them.


Who Are The Corruptible?

Perceived monsters behave like normal people rather than the expected monsters in media.  Alternatively, leaders are often selected based on how they look.  They get elected if they look like they deserve to be in power.

Corruptible people exhibit Machiavellianism, narcissism, and psychopathy.  These three traits form a dark triad.  Machiavellianism refers to claims that ends justify the means.  The individual has moral indifference, and uses interpersonal manipulation and scheming to get their way.  Narcissism refers to arrogance, self-absorption, grandiosity, and a need for recognition.  Psychopathy refers to a lack of empathy, reckless, and impulsive.  Each of the traits is on a continuum, as everyone potentially has even very mild strains of them.   

The way available positions are framed, the way they are described, influences who applies.  Power tends to be sought by those who are corruptible.

Conspicuous consumption is a signal of status, because it means that the individual has money.  The more frivolous the use of money, the more effect it is at signaling status.  


What Is The Effect Of A Culture?

Culture influences whether people are more likely to be cooperative or individualistic.  Corrupt systems can corrupt people.  Corruptible people are attracted to corruptible occupations, and vice versa as honest people are attracted to honest occupations.  The same occupations can corrupt or make people honest depending on the context.  A virtuous cycle of ethical power seekers or a vicious cycle of unethical power seekers. 

People who work closely with each over for long periods of time are more likely to develop corrupt behavior.  To counter this, people should be rotated.  Collusion becomes risky when outsiders are present.  But, if a system is systemically corrupt, rotations will not reduce the corruption.


How Does Power Influence The Mind And Body?

People in power tend to lose their inhibition, as they care less for what others think. 

More stress does not necessarily lead to health problems.  There is a difference between stress, and what stresses the body in harmful ways.  Difference between stress and biological stress.  The flight-or-fight response has become chronic and routine rather than acute and transient, which has negative health ramifications.

Those who are under immense pressure are fine as long as they have a high degree of control.  Health outcomes are bad for those under immense pressure without control.  Need at least some control of decisions being made.  Social relations can blunt the negative effects of lack of control.


How To Resolve Corruption?

The focus should be process rather than results.  Results can be based on random chance which the individual had nothing to do with, while corruptible individuals are able to give more weight to their pretended skills or even make their failures appear as successes.  Even good leaders can appear to be bad within a sample of experiences. 

Getting too psychologically close to people can hamper decisions making, but too psychologically far and any concerns are not even considered.  Need to have the right amount of emotional proximity. 

People change their behavior when they are being observed.  To be more honest if lies will be exposed.  But a surveillance society is dystopian.  Open plan offices make it easier to see what colleagues are doing.  This has detrimental effects on the employees.  Surveillance is watching the wrong people.  There are many situations in which it was not low ranked officers who were responsible for corrupt behavior, but those who held a high ranking office.  It does not take constant surveillance, but the risk of being surveilled to change behavior. 



The book is composed of various examples of people who had power and research done on the effects of power.  The examples and research have mixed qualities.  The author acknowledged that many had limitations, and that their interpretations have changed.  The information provides an account of the different ways that power effects individuals, but the information needs to be adjusted to any given situation to become practical.  

Questions to Consider while Reading the Book

•What is the raison d’etre of the book?  For what purpose did the author write the book?  Why do people read this book?
•What are some limitations of the book?
•To whom would you suggest this book?
•Who are the corruptible people?
•Who are the incorruptible people? 
•Does power corrupt?
•How does power shape an individual?
•What is the attribution error in corruption?
•What is the survivorship bias in corruption?
•How does culture influence people?
•What choice sets do leaders have?  Can leaders keep their hands clean of ethical problems? 
•What is the dark triad?
•How to resolve corruption? 
•What is the Stanford Prison Experiment? 
•Does stress lead to health problems?
•How did ranged weapons change the structure of hierarchy?  
•How did agriculture change society? 
•What is rice theory?
•What is the attribution error? 
•Who was King Leopold? 
•What does it mean to deepen and broaden the pool of applicants? 
•What is a shadow board?
•Do genes influence decisions?
•How does someone judge other people’s behavior in a situation?  And how does the individual judge their own behavior in the same situation?
•Which outcomes should be investigated? 

Book Details
Publisher:             Scribner [Simon & Schuster]
Edition ISBN:      9781982154110
Pages to read:       252
Publication:          2021
1st Edition:           2021
Format:                 eBook 

Ratings out of 5:
Readability    5
Content          5
Overall          5