Sunday, 15 August 2010

Johnald's Fantastical Daily Link Splurge

Johnald's Fantastical Daily Link Splurge

The Psychology of Power

Posted: 14 Aug 2010 08:00 AM PDT

I've got a short essay this weekend in the Wall Street Journal on the dismal psychology of power:

When CEO Mark Hurd resignedfrom Hewlett-Packard last week in light of ethics violations, many people expressed surprise. Mr. Hurd, after all, was known as an unusually effective and straight-laced executive.

But the public shouldn't have been so shocked. From prostitution scandals to corruption allegations to the steady drumbeat of charges against corporate executives and world-class athletes, it seems that the headlines are filled with the latest misstep of someone in a position of power. This isn't just anecdotal: Surveys of organizations find that the vast majority of rude and inappropriate behaviors, such as the shouting of profanities, come from the offices of those with the most authority.

Psychologists refer to this as the paradox of power. The very traits that helped leaders accumulate control in the first place all but disappear once they rise to power. Instead of being polite, honest and outgoing, they become impulsive, reckless and rude. In some cases, these new habits can help a leader be more decisive and single-minded, or more likely to make choices that will be profitable regardless of their popularity. One recent study found that overconfident CEOs were more likely to pursue innovation and take their companies in new technological directions. Unchecked, however, these instincts can lead to a big fall.

But first, the good news.

A few years ago, Dacher Keltner, a psychologist at the University of California, Berkeley, began interviewing freshmen at a large dorm on the Berkeley campus. He gave them free pizza and a survey, which asked them to provide their first impressions of every other student in the dorm. Mr. Keltner returned at the end of the school year with the same survey and more free pizza. According to the survey, the students at the top of the social hierarchy—they were the most "powerful" and respected—were also the most considerate and outgoing, and scored highest on measures of agreeableness and extroversion. In other words, the nice guys finished first.

This result isn't unique to Berkeley undergrads. Other studies have found similar results in the military, corporations and politics. "People give authority to people that they genuinely like," says Mr. Keltner.

Of course, these scientific findings contradict the cliché of power, which is that the only way to rise to the top is to engage in self-serving and morally dubious behavior. In "The Prince," a treatise on the art of politics, the 16th century Italian philosopher Niccolo Machiavelli insisted that compassion got in the way of eminence. If a leader has to choose between being feared or being loved, Machiavelli insisted that the leader should always go with fear. Love is overrated.

That may not be the best advice. Another study conducted by Mr. Keltner and Cameron Anderson, a professor at the Haas School of Business, measured "Machiavellian" tendencies, such as the willingness to spread malicious gossip, in a group of sorority sisters. It turned out that the Machiavellian sorority members were quickly identified by the group and isolated. Nobody liked them, and so they never became powerful.

There is something deeply uplifting about this research. It's reassuring to think that the surest way to accumulate power is to do unto others as you would have them do unto you. In recent years, this theme has even been extended to non-human primates, such as chimpanzees. Frans de Waal, a primatologist at Emory University, has observed that the size and strength of male chimps is an extremely poor predictor of which animals will dominate the troop. Instead, the ability to forge social connections and engage in "diplomacy" is often much more important.

Now for the bad news, which concerns what happens when all those nice guys actually get in power. While a little compassion might help us climb the social ladder, once we're at the top we end up morphing into a very different kind of beast.

"It's an incredibly consistent effect," Mr. Keltner says. "When you give people power, they basically start acting like fools. They flirt inappropriately, tease in a hostile fashion, and become totally impulsive." Mr. Keltner compares the feeling of power to brain damage, noting that people with lots of authority tend to behave like neurological patients with a damaged orbito-frontal lobe, a brain area that's crucial for empathy and decision-making. Even the most virtuous people can be undone by the corner office.

Why does power lead people to flirt with interns and solicit bribes and fudge financial documents? According to psychologists, one of the main problems with authority is that it makes us less sympathetic to the concerns and emotions of others. For instance, several studies have found that people in positions of authority are more likely to rely on stereotypes and generalizations when judging other people. They also spend much less time making eye contact, at least when a person without power is talking.

Consider a recent study led by Adam Galinsky, a psychologist at Northwestern University. Mr. Galinsky and colleagues began by asking subjects to either describe an experience in which they had lots of power or a time when they felt utterly powerless. Then the psychologists asked the subjects to draw the letter E on their foreheads. Those primed with feelings of power were much more likely to draw the letter backwards, at least when seen by another person. Mr. Galinsky argues that this effect is triggered by the myopia of power, which makes it much harder to imagine the world from the perspective of someone else. We draw the letter backwards because we don't care about the viewpoint of others.

At its worst, power can turn us into hypocrites. In a 2009 study, Mr. Galinsky asked subjects to think about either an experience of power or powerlessness. The students were then divided into two groups. The first group was told to rate, on a nine-point scale, the moral seriousness of misreporting travel expenses at work. The second group was asked to participate in a game of dice, in which the results of the dice determined the number of lottery tickets each student received. A higher roll led to more tickets.

Participants in the high-power group considered the misreporting of travel expenses to be a significantly worse offense. However, the game of dice produced a completely contradictory result. In this instance, people in the high-power group reported, on average, a statistically improbable result, with an average dice score that was 20% above that expected by random chance. (The powerless group, in contrast, reported only slightly elevated dice results.) This strongly suggests that they were lying about their actual scores, fudging the numbers to get a few extra tickets.

Although people almost always know the right thing to do—cheating is wrong—their sense of power makes it easier to rationalize away the ethical lapse. For instance, when the psychologists asked the subjects (in both low- and high-power conditions) how they would judge an individual who drove too fast when late for an appointment, people in the high-power group consistently said it was worse when others committed those crimes than when they did themselves. In other words, the feeling of eminence led people to conclude that they had a good reason for speeding—they'reimportant people, with important things to do—but that everyone else should follow the posted signs.

There's more over at the WSJ, if you're interested in how power distorts our response to advertisements, or why power only corrupts absolutely when we think no one else is watching.

Ecosystem Engineering Could Turn Sprawl Into Sanctuary

Posted: 14 Aug 2010 03:00 AM PDT

For over a decade, University of Arizona ecologist Michael Rosenzweig has preached a gospel of what he calls reconciliation ecology: designing everyday landscapes to support as many plants and animals as possible.

He says it's the only way of averting ecological catastrophe, which standard approaches to preserving nature will only slow. Some conservationists have embraced the idea. Others think it's rose-tinted dreaming. With a computer program directing the design, reconciliation ecology will get its test in Tucson, Arizona.

"We decided to turn Tucson into a lab of a million people," said Rosenzweig, who spoke on reconciliation ecology Aug. 3 at the Ecological Society of America meeting in Pittsburgh. "We're not trying to restore old habitats. We're trying to invent new ones."

The project's roots extend back to 1995, when Rosenzweig wrote a textbook on island biogeography, a field of research describing ecological dynamics on ocean islands. Over the last several decades, the research had been applied to terrestrial islands formed by human development. The findings were discouraging. Ecologists predicted the loss of 40 to 50 percent of all species. After reviewing the literature, Rosenzweig thought they were optimistic. He put the figure at 90 percent.

More island-like preserves and parks wouldn't fix this, he reasoned. It required a "reconciliation" with nature inside human-dominated biomes that were largely ignored by conservationists, and cover almost every piece of non-tundra, non-desert land.

Rosenzweig pointed to piecemeal examples of this approach, like ecosystems flourishing amidst shade-grown coffee canopies, or the wetlands of southern Czechoslovakia's fish farms. The strategy took shape in his 2003 Win-Win Ecology: How The Earth's Species Can Survive In The Midst of Human Enterprise.

Reviews were mixed. There wasn't much doubt about Rosenzeig's diagnosis, but his solution was questioned. Wrote then-Conservation International ecologist Thomas Brooks in a review, "I genuinely fear that Michael Rosenzweig's theories and examples are less broadly applicable than he argues. And yet I want to believe that he is right."

In the intervening years, Rosenzweig hasn't backed down. "The attitude we've had for 100 years is, let's save habitats. We'll have remnant patches and call them national parks and wildlife refuges. That slows extinction down, but it doesn't change the endpoint," he said. Mass extinctions won't be avoided "unless we turn our attention to the habitats we haven't paid attention to, that we haven't even called habitats."

In Tucson, those ignored habitats are backyards, schoolyards and the mosaic of neighborhoods and businesses typical of America's suburban sprawl. Rosenzweig wants to arrange their habitats with a program built on a database of life-history characteristics on 300 local plant species, plus natural history records gathered from a century of research on Tumamoc Hill, an 870-acre island of relatively undisturbed desert west of downtown.

People can decide what species they want to have. The algorithms tell them what other species they'll need. "It calculates what the relationships are, and which need to be maintained in order for species of interest to live," said Rosenzweig. Calculations are modified according to local soil type and topography.

Rosenzweig plans to do an "alpha test" at sites on Tumamoc Hill. Another is now taking place in the Barrio Kroeger Lane, a poor neighborhood set in the Santa Cruz River floodplain. Native, rainwater-harvesting Sonoran Desert vegetation is being planted to lessen summer floods. It should also bring back four local hummingbird species.

If that works, other Tucson neighborhoods could follow suit.

"There is so much potential to harmonize people and nature" in this approach, wrote ecologist Gretchen Daily in an e-mail. As head of Stanford University's conservation biology center, she studies how to predict ecological changes in human-directed landscapes, a research branch known as "countryside biogeography."

"There is a fair amount of skepticism about reconciliation being a viable model, which is why this is an important experiment," said Madhu Khatti, an urban ecologist at California State University, Fresno.

Rosenzweig envisions the tested program becoming a tool for developers, neighborhood associations, businesses, anybody with a backyard — first in Tucson, then elsewhere, as other ecologists localize the code.

"I can't put out a general rule to fit every toon, but I can put out a general method, and program it," he said. "That's what we've done. This has to be done for every area."

Of course, computer-aided ecosystem design is far from what John Muir or Edward Abbey had in mind, and old-fashioned preserves are needed for true wilderness. But as Khatti noted, "there's very few places in the world where humans can be completely removed."

"If you produce an ecological theater that meets the animals halfway, they'll do the rest," said Rosenzweig.

Images: 1) Prickly pear cactus planting at Manzo Elementary School./Michael Rosenzweig. 2) A model of ecosystem dynamics; species are red nodes, and red lines depict a configuration of relationships./Michael Rosenzweig.

See Also:

Brandon Keim's Twitter stream and reportorial outtakes; Wired Science on Twitter. Brandon is currently working on a book about ecological tipping points.