Tuesday, October 4, 2011

The phenomenon of the petty tyrant

Researchers at the Stanford Graduate School of Business decided to examine the relationship between status and power in how people treat each other. So they organized a study that involved telling participants they would be working on a business exercise with another student, and randomly assigning each participant a role in the project with a different rank, from a low-status "worker" role to that of a high-status "idea producer." In these exercises the participants were to give orders to their partners with varying degrees of respect conveyed, some orders being more demeaning than others. What the researchers found was that participants with the power to order their partners around but comparatively low status were more likely to issue demeaning orders than those with higher status:
The experiment demonstrated that "individuals in high-power/low-status roles chose more demeaning activities for their partners (e.g., bark like a dog three times) than did those in any other combination of power and status roles." 
According to the study, possessing power in the absence of status may have contributed to the acts committed by U.S. soldiers in the Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq in 2004. That incident was reminiscent of behaviors exhibited during the famous Stanford Prison Experiment with undergraduate students that went awry in the early 1970s. In both cases the guards had power, but they lacked respect and admiration in the eyes of others, and in both cases prisoners were treated in extremely demeaning ways. 
Fast said that he and his colleagues focused on the relationship between power and status because "although a lot of work has looked at these two aspects of hierarchy, it has typically looked at the isolated effects of either power or status, not both. We wanted to understand how those two aspects of hierarchy interact. We predicted that when people have a role that gives them power but lacks status — and the respect that comes with that status — then it can lead to demeaning behaviors. Put simply, it feels bad to be in a low-status position and the power that goes with that role gives them a way to take action on those negative feelings."
This reminds me of work done by social psychologist Roy Baumeister on the subject of self-esteem. He wanted to find out if it's really low self-esteem that encourages people to bully each other, as the prevailing story went in the 1980's. The goal was to discover, as he put it, the relationship between self-esteem and "violence and oppressive actions that so often are tangential or even contrary to the rational pursuit of material self-interest." What he and colleagues discovered was that in actuality, high self-esteem can cause this kind of violence-- if it is coupled with an artificially high sense of one's own status. When that impression of high status is challenged, a person's ego is threatened and aggression against the challenger can be the result:
Our main argument . . . does not depict self-esteem as an independent and direct cause of violence. Rather, we propose that the major cause of violence is high self-esteem combined with an ego threat. When favorable views about oneself are questioned, contradicted, impugned, mocked, challenged, or otherwise put in jeopardy, people may aggress. In particular, they will aggress against the source of the threat. 
In this view, then, aggression emerges from a particular discrepancy between two views of self: a favorable self-appraisal and an external appraisal that is much less favorable. That is, people turn aggressive when they receive feedback that contradicts their favorable views of themselves and implies that they should adopt less favorable views. More to the point, it is mainly the people who refuse to lower their self-appraisals who become violent.  
One might surmise that people are not exactly keen to lower their self-appraisals. So it's natural to expect that many would attempt to maintain a favorable image of themselves by discouraging expressions that disagree with that view. This can be done by punishing those who have expressed such disagreement or instilling sufficient fear in them that they are unwilling to do so.  Thus is a petty tyrant made: people with power but not much status attempting to make up for such by exerting that power to punish all who oppose them!  Or who say anything remotely negative about them. Or who fail to exercise the proper deference to their authority. Or who look at them funny.

Ken at Popehat used the Stanford (Graduate School) experiments yesterday to describe TSA workers who abuse their authority, and the unwillingness of so many to do or even say anything about it.  Under the headline "Today's TSA: Even Petty Power Corrupts. Perhaps ESPECIALLY Petty Power," he writes:
TSA agents are poorly paid, work in nasty conditions, and have little status. Yet they have, within their petty fiefdoms, tremendous power to humiliate and demean. And God, do they ever use it. 
The fact that this is a recognized psychological phenomenon explains, but does not excuse, any more than it excuses police abuse and bureaucratic indifference. Nor does it excuse the leaders of the TSA and the Department of Homeland security, who have decreed a feckless facade of security theater that is calculated to lead to this result, all in the name of promoting unquestioning compliance.
How does one stop a petty tyrant, or prevent one from being created? Two ways, that I can see:
  1. Don't give them power, thus cancelling the "tyrant," or 
  2. Give them recognizable status to be respected, thus cancelling the "petty."
This is of course a chicken and egg problem. When people recognize appalling abuse of power exercised on a regular basis by those to whom it has been allocated, they will abandon recognition of any status for the group to which the abusers belong. When people who have been given this power observe that they are not being accorded status, they have a motivation to abuse. The only way out is for those who have authority over the potential petty tyrants to both keep a tight rein on the means by which they may exert power and ensure that such power is only wielded for just causes. Crack down hard on the former student hall monitors who, upon observation, can be witnessed as being in it for the ability to wield power. Don't hire them if possible, don't give them the opportunity to be abusive while employed, and fire them if caught doing so. When this procedure is not followed, it is to all of our detriment.

Nor does it help to simply instruct people to give respect-- the most that can be elicited is a grudging, fearful, and at most temporary silence. As soon as people are out of earshot and/or under cover of anonymity, the doubt and mistrust will return, now exacerbated.  The reasonable person must instead be presented consistently with the impression that the power being asserted over him/her is appropriate, effectively used, and not open to abuse as punishment for lack of respect of the person wielding it. There is no helping the fact that some people will disdain anyone presuming to exert power over them, no matter what. But it remains the responsibility of those doing so to be consistent and fair, not personal, regardless. That is how respect for status is earned and maintained, and petty tyranny avoided.  

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