Why Do Politicians Behave Badly?

Welcome to Politics Bites, where every afternoon at It's A Free Country, we bring you the unmissable quotes from the morning's political conversations on WNYC. Today on the Brian Lehrer Show, in light of the rash of scandals afflicting politicians in office, Deborah Gruenfeld, professor of Leadership and Organizational Behavior at Stanford University Graduate School of Business, joined to discuss how power and politics can lead to bad decisions.

Power deregulates

It feels like the news has been saturated with sex scandals in recent months, but powerful politicians have been behaving badly since time immemorial. Our frustration and exasperation is just as entrenched. Why do they do it? So likely to get caught, so many to disappoint. It doesn't seem to add up. Elected officials are supposed to be good people, or at least experts at appearing to be good.

Deborah Gruenfeld said that her research showed scandalous pols weren't necessarily worse human beings, though; at least, not when it comes to their basic human impulses, which are no different from the rest of us. Rather, people in power seem worse at controlling those impulses. Average people in lower social standing feel more inclined to filter those bad temptations. 

We have a tendency to regulate our behavior in response to what we think the social consequences might be. Our hypothesis was that when people find themselves in positions of power, they stop trying to regulate their behavior. What you're seeing really is a more true expression of the person in power.

We find also that when people are in positions of power, they stop taking others' perspectives. One of the general hypotheses that we had is that power just makes people very fixated in a single-minded way on the pursuit of their own goals. There's a disinclination to think about how they're being perceived by other people.

Why not women?

Nearly every political sex scandal in recent memory has one thing in common: the politician was male. Does that mean women in power aren't as susceptible to impulse overdrive? 

Not quite, said Gruenfeld. For one, there are so few women in political office relative to men that it's far less likely they'd get into trouble. But in Gruenfeld's research, there's little difference in the degree and character of disinhibition between men and women when they're put in positions of power. She said, however, that there tends to be a lot of scandal among people with very high power motives—unless they feel highly responsible for someone else, which may be more likely for women.

US presidents who had younger siblings were less likely to engage in scandalous behavior while in office than those who didn't. That could explain why, if there's a difference between men and women in power, to the extent that women take greater responsibility for children, let's say, or tend to be more relationally oriented, you might see a lower rate of scandal.

Risky business

It's not surprising to hear that power has a deregulating effect on our actions, but what to make of the fact that scandals are so often of a sexual nature? Gruenfeld said the motivation for love and the motivation for power are inextricably linked. What is being an American politician if not getting people to like you?

What happens when you attain power is more people become attracted to you, and the paradox and irony of that is when people are attracted to you because of your power, you never trust that it's love anyway. That's part of what creates this insatiable desire to keep attaining more. It never satisfies the impulse in the end.

What's more, the very people most likely to lead us are the same people most likely to take a chance, however foolish or morally reprehensible.

The more risk-tolerant people are to begin with, the more likely they are to ascend to these very high level positions. They have a certain level of drive, of entrepreneurship, and a sense that you can do things other people haven't done in order to get there.