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Who Gets Power and How It Changes Us



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About The Book

An “absorbing, provocative, and far-reaching” (Kirkus Reviews, starred review) look at what power is, who gets it, and what happens when they do, based on over 500 interviews with those who (temporarily, at least) have had the upper hand—from the creator of the Power Corrupts podcast and Washington Post columnist Brian Klaas.

Does power corrupt, or are corrupt people drawn to power? Are tyrants made or born? Are entrepreneurs who embezzle and cops who kill the result of poorly designed systems or are they just bad people? If you were suddenly thrust into a position of power, would you be able to resist the temptation to line your pockets or seek revenge against your enemies?

To answer these questions, Corruptible draws on over 500 interviews with some of the world’s top leaders—from the noblest to the dirtiest—including presidents and philanthropists as well as rebels, cultists, and dictators. Some of the fascinating insights include: how facial appearance determines who we pick as leaders, why narcissists make more money, why some people don’t want power at all and others are drawn to it out of a psychopathic impulse, and why being the “beta” (second in command) may actually be the optimal place for health and well-being.

Corruptible also features a wealth of counterintuitive examples from history and social science: you’ll meet the worst bioterrorist in American history, hit the slopes with a ski instructor who once ruled Iraq, and learn why the inability of chimpanzees to play baseball is central to the development of human hierarchies.

Based on deep, unprecedented research from around the world, and filled with “unexpected insights…the most important lesson of Corruptible is that when psychopaths inadvertently reveal their true selves, the institutions that they plague must take action that is swift, brutal, and merciless” (Business Insider).


Chapter I: Introduction I INTRODUCTION
Does power corrupt, or are corrupt people drawn to power? Are entrepreneurs who embezzle and cops who kill the outgrowths of bad systems, or are they just bad people? Are tyrants made or born? If you were thrust into a position of power, would new temptations to line your pockets or torture your enemies gnaw away at you until you gave in? Somewhat unexpectedly, we can start to find an answer to those questions on two forgotten, faraway islands.

Far off the western coast of Australia, a little speck of land called Beacon Island barely rises above the surrounding sea. Scrubby green grass covers its surface, skirted by beige sand on its triangular coastline. You could just about throw a baseball from one side and hit the ocean on the other. It seems unremarkable, an uninhabited blip of an island with a bit of coral peppering the shallows offshore. But Beacon Island holds a secret.

On October 28, 1628, a 160-foot-long spice ship called the Batavia set sail from the Netherlands. The trading vessel was part of a fleet owned by the Dutch East India Company, a corporate empire that dominated global trade. The Batavia carried a small fortune in silver coins, ready to be exchanged for spices and the exotic riches that awaited in Java, part of modern-day Indonesia. It carried 340 people. Some were passengers. Most were crew. One was a psychopathic pharmacist.

The ship was organized into a strict hierarchy, “in which the accommodation got more spartan as one moved toward the bow.” In the stern, the captain held court in the great cabin, chewing on salted meat as he barked orders to his officers. Two decks below, soldiers were crammed into an unventilated, rat-infested crawl space that would be used to hold spices on the return journey. All on Batavia knew their rank.

A few rungs below the captain was a junior merchant named Jeronimus Cornelisz, a down-and-out former apothecary. He’d signed up to sail in desperation after losing everything through a series of personal calamities. Shortly after the sails were first unfurled, he set in motion a plan to reverse his misfortunes. In conjunction with a senior officer, Cornelisz plotted a mutiny. He steered the ship off course in preparation for seizing control in isolated waters. If all went according to plan, he’d take control of the Batavia and start a lavish new life, bought with the silver coins in the hold.

It didn’t go according to plan.

On June 4, 1629, the wooden hull of the Batavia splintered as it crashed full speed into a coral reef in the low-lying Abrolhos Islands off the Australian coast. There’d been no warning, no call to change course. In an instant, it was clear that the boat was doomed. Most of the passengers and crew tried to swim ashore. Dozens drowned. Others tried to cling to what was left of the Batavia.

Realizing that nobody would survive unless they were rescued, the captain took control of the emergency longboat and most of the salvaged supplies. With forty-seven others, including the entire senior leadership of the crew, he set off for Java. He promised that they’d soon return with a rescue party. Hundreds were abandoned, with little food, almost no water, and only a faint hope that, someday, someone would return. Nothing grew or lived on the barren island. It was obvious: the survivors were running out of time.

Cornelisz, the would-be mutineer, was among those left behind. There was no longer a seaworthy ship to take over. But he didn’t know how to swim, so standing on what remained of the sinking Batavia seemed preferable to plunging into the water and frantically splashing his way to the island. For nine days, seventy men, including Cornelisz, occupied a shrinking territory of dry wood. They drank as they contemplated the inevitable.

On June 12, the ship finally broke apart. The surf bashed some of the remaining men against the sharp coral, giving them a quicker end than others who flailed for a few minutes before drowning. Cornelisz somehow survived. He eventually “floated to the island in a mass of driftwood, the last man to escape Batavia alive.”

When he reached the refuge of soggy sand on what is now Beacon Island, the anarchy and chaos of survival instincts reverted to the established order of hierarchy and status. Though Cornelisz washed ashore ragged and weak, he was still an officer. That meant he was in charge. “The Batavia was a highly hierarchical society,” the historian Mike Dash says, “and that survived on the island as well.” The hundreds marooned on the sparse grasslands of the pitiful island rushed to help their superior. They’d live to regret it. Or at least some would.

Once recovered and replenished, Cornelisz did some quick calculations. The situation was dire. The food, water, and wine that had survived the wreck wouldn’t last. The supply wasn’t going to expand, he figured, so it was necessary to reduce the demand. The survivors needed fewer stomachs to fill.

Cornelisz started to consolidate power by eliminating potential rivals. Some were sent on foolhardy missions in small boats and then pushed overboard to drown. Others were accused of crimes, a pretext used to sentence them to death. Those grisly executions asserted Cornelisz’s authority. But they also provided a useful loyalty test. Men who would kill on his orders were useful. Men who refused were a threat. One by one, the threats were eliminated. Soon, the pretexts disappeared, too. A boy was decapitated to test whether a sword was still sharp. Children were murdered for no reason. The killings were done on Cornelisz’s orders, but he didn’t murder anyone himself. Instead, he displayed his dominance by dressing himself in fine garb from the ship: “silk stockings, garters with gold laces, and… suchlike adornments.” The others wore soiled rags as they waited their turn to be murdered.

By the time the Batavia’s captain returned with a rescue mission months later, more than a hundred people had been killed. Cornelisz finally got a taste of his own island justice: He was sentenced to death. His hands were cut off. He was hanged. But the gruesome episode raises a disturbing question about humanity: If Cornelisz hadn’t been on board, would the massacres have been avoided? Or would they just have been led by someone else?

Four thousand miles east of Beacon Island, on the other side of Australia, lies another deserted island, in the Tongan archipelago, called ‘Ata. In 1965, six boys, ages fifteen to seventeen, ran away from their boarding school. They stole a fishing boat and started sailing north. On the first day, they only made it five miles before they decided to drop anchor and rest for the night. As they tried to sleep, a strong storm tossed around their twenty-four-foot boat, ripping away the anchor. The gale-force winds soon snapped the sail and destroyed the rudder, too. When daylight broke, the boys had no way to steer, no way to navigate, and were adrift on the mercy of ocean currents. For eight days, they coasted south, completely unaware of which direction was home.

As the six teenagers began to lose hope, they spotted a looming splash of green in the distance. It was ‘Ata, a craggy island covered with dense vegetation. With limited ability to steer their damaged fishing boat, the boys waited until they drifted near the shore and abandoned ship. They swam to save their lives. It was their last hope before they were swept out to the unforgiving open ocean. At last, they made it, cut up from the rocks, but alive.

The cliffs that lined ‘Ata had made it challenging to clamber ashore, but they turned out to be the young castaways’ saving grace. The jagged rocks made perfect roosts for seabirds, and the boys began working together to trap them. With no fresh water to be found, they improvised and drank seabird blood. After foraging around their new home, they upgraded to coconut juice. Eventually, their meals went from raw to cooked as they started their first fire. The boys agreed to keep constant watch over the simmering flames, ensuring that it would never die out. Each boy took his turn tending the embers, twenty-four hours a day. This lifeline allowed them to cook fish, seabirds, even tortoises.

Their living standards improved further through collaboration. The boys worked together for four days to tap into the roots of one of the island’s larger trees, collecting fresh water one drip at a time. They hollowed out tree trunks to collect rainwater. They made a primitive house out of palm fronds. Every task was shared. There was no leader. There was no gold lace or stockings. There were no barked orders, no plots to consolidate power, no murders. As they conquered the island, their successes—and failures—were divided evenly.

Six months into being castaways, one of the boys, Tevita Fatai Latu, slipped and fell during his daily seabird hunt and broke his leg. The other five boys rushed to help him, using the traditional Tongan method of heating coconut stalks to create a splint, immobilizing the bone back in place. For the next four months, Tevita couldn’t walk, but the other boys took care of him until he could again help with daily chores.

At times, there were disputes. (Tempers will occasionally flare whenever you stick six people together 24-7 with a menu that largely consists of seabirds and turtles.) But when an argument broke out, the boys had the good sense to simply move apart. Those who were at loggerheads would isolate in different parts of the island, sometimes for up to two days, until they cooled down and could again work together to survive.

After more than a year, they began to accept that their new life wasn’t temporary. So, they settled in for the long haul, passing the days by fashioning crude tennis racquets and holding competitions, arranging boxing matches, and exercising together. To avoid depleting their stocks of birds to eat, they agreed to a daily limit per person and began trying to plant wild beans.

Fifteen months after the boys were shipwrecked, an Australian named Peter Warner was puttering along in his fishing boat, searching for places to catch crayfish. As he approached an uninhabited island, he spotted something unusual. “I noticed this burnt out patch on the cliff face, which is an unusual thing in the tropics because bushfires don’t start in that humid atmosphere,” Warner, now eighty-nine years old, recalls. Then, something astonishing came into view, a naked boy sporting fifteen months’ worth of hair. The boys whooped and waved palm leaves hoping to catch the boat’s attention. When the boat got close enough, the boys jumped into the ocean and began swimming toward the rescue that they never thought would come. Unsure of what was happening, Warner wondered whether the boys had been banished to the island as prisoners, a punishment reserved for the worst of the worst in Polynesian society. “I was a little bit alarmed at the sight of these healthy-looking teenagers with no clothes on them, no haircut,” he tells me. Warner loaded his rifle and waited.

When they reached the boat, the boys politely explained who they were. Warner had no idea that any boys had gone missing, so he radioed to an operator and asked them to call the boys’ school in Tonga to verify their story. Twenty minutes later, the tearful operator informed Warner that the boys had been missing, assumed dead, for well over a year. “Funerals have been held,” the operator said. The boys were brought back to Tonga and reunited with their families. In the aftermath of their rescue, the oldest boy, Sione Fataua, traded his anxieties about survival for his worries about returning home: “A few of us had girlfriends. Perhaps they won’t remember?”

As the Dutch historian Rutger Bregman put it, “The real Lord of the Flies is a tale of friendship and loyalty; one that illustrates how much stronger we are if we can lean on each other.” For Warner, who still regularly sails with one of the boys from the castaways, the entire episode provides “a great boost for humanity.”

Two desert islands, two conflicting visions of human nature. In one, a single power-hungry individual consolidated control over others to exploit and kill them. In the other, egalitarian teamwork prevailed and cooperation reigned supreme. What accounts for the difference?

Beacon Island had structure. It had order. It had rank. It ended in tragedy. ‘Ata, on the other hand, was a jagged and vertical hunk of rock, but the society carved out by those boys over fifteen months was completely flat. These conflicting desert-island tales raise difficult questions. Are we doomed to exploitation because of bad humans or because of bad hierarchies? Why does the world seem to be full of so many Cornelisz-style leaders in positions of authority and so few like the boys on ‘Ata? And, if you and your coworkers ended up stranded on a desert island, would you overthrow the boss and work together as equals to solve problems like the Tongan teenagers? Or would there be a bloody struggle for power and dominance like there was on Beacon Island? How would you behave?

This book answers four main questions.

First, do worse people get power?

Second, does power make people worse?

Third, why do we let people control us who clearly have no business being in control?

Fourth, how can we ensure that incorruptible people get into power and wield it justly?

For the past decade, I’ve been studying these questions across the globe, from Belarus to Britain, Côte d’Ivoire to California, Thailand to Tunisia, and Australia to Zambia. As part of my research as a political scientist, I interview people—mostly bad people who abuse their power to do bad things. I’ve met with cult leaders, war criminals, despots, coup plotters, torturers, mercenaries, generals, propagandists, rebels, corrupt CEOs, and convicted criminals. I try to figure out what makes them tick. Understanding them—and studying the systems they operate in—is crucial to stopping them. Many were crazy and cruel, others kind and compassionate. But all were unified by one trait: they wielded enormous power.

When you shake hands with a rebel commander who committed war crimes or have breakfast with a ruthless despot who tortured his enemies, it’s startling how rarely they live up to the caricature of evil. They’re often charming. They crack jokes and smile. At first glance, they don’t appear to be monsters. But many were.

Year after year, I’ve struggled with haunting puzzles. Are the torturers and war criminals a different breed altogether, or are they just more extreme versions of the petty tyrants we occasionally encounter in our offices and neighborhood associations? Are there would-be monsters hiding among us? In the right circumstances, could anyone become a monster? If that’s the case, then the lessons learned from bloodthirsty despots could be useful for reducing smaller-scale abuses in our own societies. It’s a particularly urgent puzzle to solve because we’re constantly disappointed by those in power. Tell anyone you’re a political scientist and a question often follows: “Why are so many horrible people in charge?”

But another puzzle keeps demanding an answer: Were these people turned awful by the power they held? I’ve had my doubts. Another possibility has gnawed at me: that those who seemed to be made worse by power are just the tip of the iceberg. Perhaps something much bigger and more serious is lurking beneath the waves, waiting to be discovered, so we can fix it.

Let’s start with the conventional wisdom. Everyone has heard the famous aphorism “Power corrupts, absolute power corrupts absolutely.” It’s widely believed. But is it true?

A few years ago, I was in Madagascar, a sprawling red-earthed island off the coast of Africa. Everybody knows Madagascar for its lovable ring-tailed lemurs, but it’s home to an equally interesting species: corrupt politicians. The island is largely governed by crooks who cash in as they rule over 30 million of the poorest people on the planet. Buy a latte and a muffin and you’ve just spent a week’s wages for the average person in Madagascar. To make matters worse, the rich often prey on the poor. And I was there to meet one of the richest men in Madagascar: the island’s yogurt kingpin, Marc Ravalomanana.

Ravalomanana grew up destitute. At the age of five, to help his family survive, he’d load up baskets with watercress and peddle them to passengers on a dilapidated train that passed by his school. One day, he caught an unexpected break: a neighbor gave him a bicycle. Young Marc started cycling to nearby farms to ask for excess milk, which he’d turn into homemade yogurt. As he built his fledgling business, he tried to give back to his struggling community. When he wasn’t volunteering at the local church or singing in its choir, he hawked the yogurt off the back of that rickety bicycle, growing his business pot by pot and year by year.

By the late 1990s, he’d become the island’s dairy baron and one of Madagascar’s richest men. In 2002, he became President Ravalomanana, a shrewd politician who understood the value of a rags-to-riches story in a country where just about everyone was still in rags. As president, he promised change. Initially, he delivered. His government invested in roads, cracked down on corruption, and rooted out poverty with sky-high economic growth. Madagascar became home to one of the fastest-growing economies in the world. It appeared to be a success story, an against-the-odds parable that good people from humble beginnings make wise, just rulers.

I decided to pay Ravalomanana a visit. When I arrived at his palatial house, he walked out of the front door sporting a navy blue Nike tracksuit with a white stripe down the side. Beaming, he shook my hand and led me inside. He showed off his workout room, where he’d been doing calisthenics since 5:00 a.m. (“It’s the only way to keep your mind sharp enough to make important decisions,” he told me). Then, he pointed out his custom-made decorative shrine to Jesus, a sort of model-train version of Bethlehem with a large wooden cross overlooking the miniaturized town. We went upstairs, and at the end of a corridor, he threw open large mahogany double doors. An enormous table was behind them. Every inch was covered with food, piles of warm croissants, eggs prepared every possible way, five kinds of juices, and enough yogurt to feed his childhood village for a week. The days of poverty and watercress were long gone.

Even though Ravalomanana’s chief of staff joined us, only two places were set, one for him, and one for me. I sat down, opened my notebook, and reached for my pen, only to realize I’d forgotten it.

“No problem,” Ravalomanana said. “We may be poor, but we have pens.”

He picked up a small bell next to his fork and shook it. Within seconds, two employees raced into the room, each hoping to be first to the table.

“Pen,” Ravalomanana barked.

The two men hurried off. Both returned within thirty seconds, each clutching a brand-new ballpoint, competing for praise. The slower man looked dejected when he didn’t get it.

That’s when Ravalomanana got down to business. He was preparing to launch his bid to retake the presidency in the upcoming election. He looked intently at me.

“I saw from Google that you have experience advising campaigns,” he said. “Tell me, what should I do to win mine?”

The question caught me off guard. I was there to study him, not advise his campaign. But I wanted to establish rapport, so I improvised. “Well, when I helped manage a campaign for governor back home in Minnesota, we came up with an effective sort of gimmick. We visited all eighty-seven counties in eighty-seven days, to show we cared about the whole state. There are one hundred nineteen districts in Madagascar. Why don’t you do one hundred nineteen districts in one hundred nineteen days?”

He nodded, signaling that I should continue.

“You could wrap it up with your rags-to-riches image. Just ride a bicycle through each town to remind people of your childhood selling yogurt while showing that you understand what it’s like to be poor.”

He nodded, turned to his chief of staff, and said, “Buy one hundred nineteen bicycles.”

Ravalomanana was no stranger to winning elections with unusual tactics. He had no qualms breaking the rules, either. In 2006, he was favored to win reelection, but was unwilling to leave anything to chance. He rigged the election with a novel tactic: forcing his main opponent into exile and then blocking him from returning home to register his candidacy. Every time his rival tried to return to Madagascar, Ravalomanana picked up the phone and ordered all the airports on the island closed, causing the aircraft carrying his opponent to turn back. It worked. The rival wasn’t allowed to register from abroad, so he was left off the ballot. Ravalomanana won in a landslide.

In 2008, Ravalomanana—a man of humble beginnings, church choirs, and charity volunteering—got greedy. After six years in power, it seemed that something had changed inside him. In a country where the average person earned a few hundred dollars per year, he used $60 million of state funds to buy a presidential aircraft (somewhat ambitiously named Air Force Two). He tried to license the aircraft to himself, rather than to Madagascar’s government. Year after year in power, his corruption seemed to grow worse and worse.

Eventually, it would prove his downfall. In 2009, an upstart radio DJ turned politician organized protests against President Ravalomanana. The former DJ took to the airwaves to egg on the peaceful protesters as they marched to the presidential palace. As they arrived, soldiers defending the yogurt kingpin opened fire. It was a bloodbath. Hundreds were shot. Dozens were killed. People were outraged. Not long after the blood was cleaned from the streets, Ravalomanana was toppled in a coup d’état, a military takeover that put the radio DJ in power.

Perhaps the conventional wisdom is right: power does corrupt. Ravalomanana the five-year-old dreamed only of upgrading from watercress to yogurt. His business played by the rules. He wasn’t violent. He helped others, not himself. Taking control of the island, it seems, somehow altered him. It made him worse. But perhaps it wasn’t Ravalomanana’s fault. In the end, the DJ president may have become more corrupt than the dairy baron he replaced. Maybe if you, or I, were suddenly made the president of a notoriously corrupt island, we would become corrupt ourselves. It’d just be a matter of time.

Sometimes, though, the conventional wisdom has got it all wrong. What if power doesn’t make us better or worse? What if power just attracts certain kinds of people—and those people are precisely the ones who shouldn’t be in charge? Maybe those who most want power are least suited to hold it. Perhaps those who crave power are corruptible.

If you’ve ever read a pop psychology book or watched a documentary about prisons, odds are pretty high that you’ve heard of a notorious study that seemed to suggest power does indeed corrupt. There’s just one problem: everything you think you know about that study is wrong.

Late in the summer of 1971, Philip Zimbardo, a researcher at Stanford University, built a fake jail in the basement of the psychology department. He recruited eighteen college students as participants in a quasi-scientific experiment aimed at determining whether social roles can transform the behavior of normal people beyond recognition. The hypothesis was simple: Human behavior is surprisingly chameleonlike. We match the role we have, or the uniform we wear.

To test whether that was true, Zimbardo randomly assigned nine of the volunteer participants to be “guards.” The other nine became “prisoners.” For $15 per day for two weeks, they were to live out an all-too-real criminal-justice role play. What happened next is now infamous. The guards almost immediately began abusing the prisoners. They attacked them with fire extinguishers. They took away their mattresses and forced them to sleep on the concrete floor. They stripped their peers naked just to show who was boss. Power, it seemed, had made them awful.

Deprived of control, the prisoners transformed from proud, outgoing college students into insular and submissive shadows of their former selves. In one harrowing moment, a guard who had already been abusive toward his fellow college students lined up the prisoners to humiliate them.

“In the future, you do work when you’re told.”

“Thank you, Mr. Correctional Officer,” a prisoner replies.

“Say it again.”

“Thank you, Mr. Correctional Officer.”

“Say, ‘Bless you, Mr. Correctional Officer.’?”

“Bless you, Mr. Correctional Officer.”

The study was supposed to continue for two weeks. But when Zimbardo’s girlfriend visited the fake jail and saw what was happening, she was horrified. She convinced him to shut the experiment down after six days. When the findings were published, it shocked the world. Documentaries were made. Books were written. The evidence seemed clear: Demons are within all of us. Power just lets them come out.

But there was a catch. The seemingly straightforward narrative of the Stanford Prison Experiment, which had become conventional wisdom in psychology, wasn’t so clear-cut. Only some of the guards were abusive. Several resisted and treated the student prisoners with respect. So even if power does corrupt, are some people more immune than others?

Plus, a few prisoners and guards now say they were just putting on a performance. They believed the researchers wanted to see a show, so they gave them one. A recently unearthed audio recording of the experiment’s preliminary phase has raised questions about whether the participants were coached to be harsh toward prisoners, rather than spontaneously becoming nasty. So, the picture is a bit murkier than we were led to believe. But even with those caveats, the experiment is harrowing. Ordinary people, if put in the right conditions, can become cruel and depraved. Are we all just sadists waiting to be unmasked once we get control over others?

The answer, thankfully, is probably not. Zimbardo’s conclusions didn’t take into account a crucial aspect of the study: how the participants were recruited. To find prisoners and guards, researchers placed this ad in the local newspaper:

Male college students needed for a psychological study of prison life. $15 per day for 1–2 weeks beginning August 14th. For further information and applications, contact…

In 2007, researchers at Western Kentucky University noticed a small, seemingly insignificant detail about that ad. It made them wonder whether it had inadvertently skewed the study. To find out, they replicated that ad, only changing $15 to $70 (to adjust for inflation since the 1970s). Every other word in the updated ad was identical. Then, they created a new ad. It was the same in every way, with one key difference: it replaced the line “for a psychological study of prison life” with the phrase “for a psychological study.” In some college towns, they placed the “prison life” advertisement. In others, they placed the “psychological study” ad. The idea was to have one group that volunteered for a prison experiment and another group that volunteered for a generic psychology study. Would there be any difference between the people who responded?

Once the recruitment period closed, the researchers invited the prospective participants in for psychological screening and a thorough personality evaluation. What they found was extraordinary. Those who responded to the prison experiment advertisement scored significantly higher on measures of “aggressiveness, authoritarianism, Machiavellianism, narcissism, and social dominance and significantly lower on dispositional empathy and altruism” compared to the generic study. Just by including the word prison in the advertisement, they ended up with a disproportionately sadistic batch of students.

That finding could invert the conclusions of the Stanford Prison Experiment in ways that fundamentally transform our understanding of power. Instead of demonstrating that ordinary people thrust into power can become sadistic, it may demonstrate that sadistic people seek out power. Maybe we’ve had it backward. Maybe power is just a magnet for bad people rather than a force that turns good people bad. In that formulation, power doesn’t corrupt—it attracts.

But there’s still another mystery. Even if people ill-suited to power are drawn to it, why do they seem to attain it so easily? After all, in modern societies, a significant amount of control isn’t taken, but given. CEOs don’t engage in gladiator-style combat with midlevel managers to reach the corner office. Craven and corrupt politicians, at least in democracies, need to get ordinary people to support them to take charge. The recent revelations about the Stanford Prison Experiment raise the possibility that bad people are drawn to power. But what if we, as humans, are also somehow drawn to giving power to the wrong people for the wrong reasons?

In 2008, researchers in Switzerland conducted an experiment to test that hypothesis. They recruited 681 local children—all between the ages of five and thirteen. The kids were asked to play a computer simulation in which they had to make decisions about a ship that was about to embark on a voyage. Each child had to select a captain for their digital ship based on two faces that appeared on-screen. No other information was given. This was designed to force the children to decide: Who looks like a good captain to you? Who appears as if he or she would make an effective leader of your imaginary ship?

What the kids didn’t know was that the two possible captains weren’t a random assortment of people. Instead, they were politicians who had competed in recent French parliamentary elections. The pairs of faces were randomly assigned to the children, but each pair they saw contained the winner of an election and the runner-up. The results of the study were astonishing: 71 percent of the time, the children picked as their captain the candidate who’d won the election. When the researchers ran the same experiment with adults, the researchers were astonished to see nearly identical results. The findings were remarkable on two fronts. First, even children can accurately identify election winners based on faces alone, highlighting how superficial our assessments of leadership potential can be. Second, children and adults don’t have radically dissimilar cognitive processing in picking people to be in charge. It gave fresh meaning to the phrase taking someone at face value. As further evidence that our powers of leadership selection are flawed, several other studies have shown that those who are more aggressive or rude in group discussions are perceived as being more powerful and leader-like than those who are more cooperative or meek.

Yes, this is already getting complicated. Power might corrupt good people. But it also might attract bad people. And maybe we, as humans, are somehow drawn to bad leaders for bad reasons.

Unfortunately, the complexity is just beginning. There’s another wrinkle to consider. What if people in power do bad things not because they’re a bad person to begin with, and not because they turn bad after taking power, but because they’re stuck in a bad system? That idea makes a lot of sense. After all, playing by the rules might get you promoted in Norway, while it guarantees that you’ll never attain power in Uzbekistan. That helps explain why some people in positions of authority are genuinely wonderful—out to help others rather than helping themselves. The allure of power and the effects of being in charge may therefore depend on the context. Thankfully, contexts and systems can be changed. That provides a bit of good news: perhaps we’re not doomed to a world in which abusive Cornelisz-style leadership is inevitable. Perhaps we can fix it.

One study conducted in Bangalore, India, provides some evidence for that optimistic view. The researchers wanted to see what kinds of people were drawn toward government careers in a place where the public sector is known for graft and bribery. India’s civil service provided a good testing ground, as it’s infamous for rampant corruption. Everybody knows that becoming a government official in Bangalore provides opportunities to take home some off-the-books pay. In the experiment, designed by two economists, hundreds of university students were asked to roll standard dice forty-two times and record the results. As with all dice, it was just down to luck. Before they rolled the dice, however, the students were told that they’d be paid more if they had some good fortune and rolled higher numbers. More fours, fives, and sixes would lead to more cash.

But because the results were self-reported, students could lie about their dice rolls. Many did. The number six was recorded 25 percent of the time, while the number one was recorded only 10 percent of the time. With statistical analysis, the researchers could be sure that such skewed results couldn’t possibly have been due to chance. A few students were even so brazen as to claim that they rolled sixes no fewer than forty-two times in a row. But there was a twist in the data: the students who cheated in the experiment had different career aspirations from those who reported scores honestly. Those who self-reported bogus high scores were much more likely than the average student to say that they aspired to join India’s corrupt civil service.

When another team of researchers ran a similar experiment in Denmark—a country where the civil service is clean and transparent—the results were inverted. Students who self-reported their scores honestly were far more likely to aspire to be civil servants, while those who lied were the students who sought other professions that could make them filthy rich. 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.

We’re left with a series of possible solutions to our exasperatingly complex puzzles. First, power makes people worse—power corrupts. Watercress becomes a yogurt empire, and before you know it, you’re rigging elections and buying airplanes with money that isn’t yours. Second, it’s not that power corrupts, but rather that worse people are drawn to power—power attracts the corruptible. The psychopathic pharmacists can’t resist climbing a doomed ship’s hierarchy, and the sadists can’t resist the allure of slipping on a uniform and beating a prisoner with a baton. Third, the problem doesn’t lie with the power holders or power seekers, it’s that we are attracted to bad leaders for bad reasons, and so we tend to give them power. Our captains—and not just of imaginary ships—are selected for irrational reasons. When they crash us into rocky reefs, we have only ourselves to blame. And fourth, focusing on the individuals in power is a mistake because it all depends on the system. Bad systems spit out bad leaders. Create the right context and power can purify instead of corrupting.

These hypotheses are potential explanations for two of the most fundamental questions about human society: Who gets power and how does it change us? This book provides answers.

About The Author

Photo by Harvey Mills

Brian Klaas grew up in Minnesota, earned his DPhil at Oxford, and is now a professor of global politics at University College London. He is a contributing writer for The Atlantic, host of the award-winning Power Corrupts podcast, and frequent guest on national television. Klaas has conducted field research across the globe and advised major politicians and organizations including NATO and the European Union. You can find him at and on X @BrianKlaas.

Product Details

  • Publisher: Scribner (September 20, 2022)
  • Length: 320 pages
  • ISBN13: 9781982154103

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Raves and Reviews

A Kirkus Reviews Best Book of 2021

“FUN AND ENTERTAINING…With a deft literary hand, Klaas describes how positions that offer power and possibilities for enrichment feature incentives that attract the wrong sort of people.”
Washington Post

“COMPELLING... [A] useful framework [for] recognizing that while difficult to change, human behavior can be steered in better directions.”
Washington Monthly

“UNEXPECTED INSIGHTS…presented in a digestible and accessible way…Maybe the most important lesson of Corruptible is that when psychopaths inadvertently reveal their true selves, the institutions that they plague must take action that is swift, brutal and merciless.”
Business Insider

“FAST-PACED…Klaas is an entertaining guide who has read widely across different fields and is able to connect his findings insightfully and judiciously.”
Times Literary Supplement

"ABSORBING, PROVOCATIVE, FAR-REACHING...Essential for interpreting history and world events—both the province of tyrants—alike."
Kirkus Reviews (starred review)

“ENRICHED BY COLORFUL CASE STUDIES AND LUCID EXPLANATIONS... a nuanced and entertaining guide to the meaning and function of power.”
Publishers Weekly

“ILLUMINATING…reveals why some people and systems are more likely to be corrupted by power than others."
—Adam Grant, #1 New York Times bestselling author of Think Again

“A FASCINATING, FUN READ…Klaas has striking insights, presents impeccable science accessibly, and tells terrific stories—all with great writing and wonderfully mordant humor.”
—Robert Sapolsky, New York Times bestselling author of Behave: The Biology of Humans at Our Best and Worst

“A NEW, INSIGHTFUL, AND SEDITIOUS ROADMAP TO THE PRIMAL URGE TO DOMINATE… Dangerous as a drug addiction, power changes both those who have it and those who just want a quick fix.”
—Richard Engel, Chief Foreign Correspondent of NBC News

"AN EXTRAORDINARY INTERROGATION OF THE WORKINGS OF POWER... A critical book for these troubling times. A must read!"
—Eddie S. Glaude Jr., James S. McDonnell Distinguished University Professor at Princeton University

"ENGROSSING, THOUGHT-PROVOKING, AND FUNNY... an important exploration of how ordinary people can keep leadership out of the hands of monsters."
—Heather Cox Richardson, author of How the South Won the Civil War and the newsletter "Letters from an American"

"THE FREAKONOMICS OF POLITICAL SCIENCE... With revelations that reach from global politics to how your company is managed, this is a perceptive and, above all, entertaining read."
—Max Boot, Washington Post columnist and senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations

“PASSIONATE, INSIGHTFUL, AND OCCASIONLLY JAW-DROPPINGCorruptible sets out the story of the intoxicating lure of power—and how it has shaped the modern world.”
—Peter Frankopan, internationally bestselling author of The Silk Roads: A New History of the World

"RICH INSIGHTS AND FASCINATING OBSERVATIONS... Shines a light on recent efforts to ensure that the corrupt don't get power, and the incorruptible do."
—Richard Stengel, former managing editor of Time magazine and author of Information Wars

“A MAGNIFICENT BOOK THAT IS AS RIVETING AS A CRIME STORY… Klaas merges insights from evolutionary science, a wealth of recent social psychology research, and personal interviews with the powerful (and corrupt).”
—Peter Turchin, author of Ultrasociety: How 10,000 Years of War Made Humans the Greatest Cooperators on Earth

—Garry Kasparov, Chairman of both the Renew Democracy Initiative and the Human Rights Foundation, and, formerly, world chess champion

“A BRILLIANT EXPLORATION…This book builds Brian Klaas’ reputation, offering an essential guide through our world of democratic decay, corruption, and cronyism.”
—Dan Snow, bestselling author of On This Day in History

"Essential. A brilliant study of the nature of power, explaining just why it so often renders those who hold it evil."

—Kirkus Reviews (starred review)

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