How Power Corrupts V

What science has to say about the corrupting effects of power

A recent article by Jerry Useem in the Atlantic, “Power Causes Brain Damage”, provides me an opportunity to return to my series of posts on the corrupting effects of power. My previous musings ― on character as a partial antidote to these effects and the dangers of addiction, on the connections between power, fear, and violence, and those between power and lies, and the perverse incentives that power imposes on those who seek and wield it ― mainly drew on literature, with a bit of political analysis and economics thrown in for good measure. Mr. Useem’s article describes a couple of very different sources for this inquiry: neuroscience and experimental psychology.

Mr. Useem reviews a number of scientific studies that have found some of the same effects that writers and philosophers who have concerned themselves with power have described. One psychologist found that experimental

[s]ubjects under the influence of power … acted as if they had suffered a traumatic brain injury—becoming more impulsive, less risk-aware, and, crucially, less adept at seeing things from other people’s point of view.

The inability of people in power to relate to others is observable both when looking at their brain processes directly, as a neuroscientist’s work suggests, and at their behaviour, whether in experiments or in real life situations that seem to echo them.

It seems likely that the inability of the powerful to empathize with others and their impulsiveness both help explain why power is inevitably violent and deceitful. It is easier to manipulate or to crush people if you do not ask yourself how they might feel about that ― and the individuals or institutions that wield power don’t. Besides, as another psychologist to whose work Mr. Useem refers points out, “power lessens the need for a nuanced read of people, since it gives us command of resources we once had to cajole from others”. In other words, why would you bother being nice to people when you can coerce them? This is a point about power’s perverse incentives, albeit a different one from that which I discussed in a post linked to above.

Now, the psychologists’ experiments’ subjects were not actual politicians or corporate executives ― “[t]hey were”, Mr. Useem explains, “college students who had been ‘primed’ to feel potent by recounting an experience in which they had been in charge.” Mr. Useem speculates that the effects the experiments shows

would presumably wear off when the feeling did—their brains weren’t structurally damaged after an afternoon in the lab. But if the effect had been long-lasting … they may have what in medicine is known as “functional” changes to the brain.

In fact, some experimental findings suggest that this is likely to be so. This is unsurprising, since both the guess that “an afternoon in the lab” is unlikely to have a long-lasting effect, and the possibility that long-term exposure to power does not wear off so easily, are quite consistent with the role of addiction in power’s corrupting effects.

Mr. Useem recounts studies that suggest that people in a position of power can try to resist addiction to it by reminding themselves, or having someone remind them, either of the limits on their power or of its corrupting influence on them and those around them. Although Mr. Useem does not mention it, the old-fashioned memento mori is the best-known implementation of this idea. Gandalf’s repeated insistence that Frodo not use the Ring, and his pointed injunction, when Frodo wears it on Amon Hen and is in danger of being discovered by Sauron’s Eye ― “Fool, take it off! Take off the Ring!” ― is an obvious literary example. But from what we know about power ― from the Lord of the Rings and other sources ― these are no more than temporary fixes. Sooner or later, addiction will take hold.

In exploring the damaging effects of power, Mr. Useem seems mostly interested in business leaders, and in ways in which they can remain effective despite power’s corrosive influence on them. My focus in this series of posts is somewhat different: it is on political power, and what can be done to control it. That politicians might become less effective over time does not particularly bother me. If anything, the possibility that “[o]nce we have power, we lose some of the capacities we needed to gain it in the first place” seems reassuring ― provided that the ineffective politicians can be dispensed with.

I once again conclude, then, with a reminder of the importance of constitutional mechanisms to limit the amount of harm a brain-damaged politician can inflict on us. Separation of powers, federalism, and protections for individual rights limit the amount of power a politician can wield to begin with ― and perhaps even limit the amount of damage his or her brain will come  to sustain. The Rule of Law provides further restraints on the manner in which power, even when it exists, can be exercised. And democracy provides the essential mechanism by which the politician who has overstayed his welcome ― for example because his or her brain has turned to power-corrupted mush ― can be thrown out of office.

To be sure, no constitutional device is fool- or Caesar-proof. For the ultimate, democratic safeguard against the corrupting effects of power to work, voters must be willing to invoke it ― and we should probably harbour no great illusions on that score. But constitutional and democratic safeguards are all we have ― and they are, after all, better than nothing.

What the Judge Googled for Breakfast

A recent decision of an American appellate court provides a vivid illustration of the complexity of the issues surrounding the courts’ treatment of scientific information that I have been blogging about here. The case is a prisoner’s suit against the medical staff at his prison, alleging that their refusal to let him take medication against reflux oesophagitis prior to his meals ― rather than on a schedule seemingly arbitrarily determined by them, or indeed at all ― amounted to cruel and unusual treatment. In Rowe v. Gibson, a divided panel of the federal Court of Appeals for the 7th Circuit dismissed the defendants’ motion for summary judgment in their favour. The main opinion, by Judge Richard Posner, is most interesting for its liberal citation to online sources not in the record ― and for addressing directly the objection’s to this practice.

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The defendant doctor, who apparently doubled as an expert witness (despite not being specialized in the sort of medical problems the plaintiff was suffering from), claimed that it did not matter when the plaintiff took his medications. Indeed, at some point shortly after the plaintiff sued, he came to the conclusion that it did not matter whether the plaintiff took his medications at all, and so refused to prescribe them ― though he relented a month later, as a “courtesy” to the plaintiff. (A particularly gruesome detail: the prison authorities consistently stressed that the plaintiff was free to buy the medications from the commissary, if he wanted to take them on his own schedule ― but he didn’t have even a fraction of the money this would have required, and wouldn’t have been allowed to buy more than a few days’ supply per month anyway.) And since the plaintiff did not supply an expert opinion of his own, the doctor’s stood uncontradicted ― until Judge Posner took to the internet.

What Judge Posner found there, crucially, is that the doctor’s assertions about the effectiveness of the medication at issue were flatly contradicted by the information provided by the drug companies manufacturing the medication, as well as other sources of medical information. The defendants’ expert suddenly looked incompetent, self-interested, or both. There was, after all, a genuine issue for trial.

But was it appropriate for Judge Posner to start looking for the medical information that the plaintiff did not provide him with? The judge makes no apologies: “When medical information can be gleaned from the websites of highly reputable medical centers, it is not imperative that it instead be presented by a testifying witness.” (13) This is particularly so when there is little relevant information in the record, and when it is only used to establish the existence of a genuine issue for trial, not to determine the outcome of the case.

And there is more. After a rather bizarre reference to the Magna Carta, Judge Posner asks:

Shall the unreliability of the unalloyed adversary process in a case of such dramatic inequality of resources and capabilities of the parties as this case be an unalterable bar to justice? Must our system of justice allow the muddled affidavit of a defendant who may well be unqualified to be an expert witness in this case to carry the day against a pro se plaintiff helpless to contest the affidavit? (14)

And further:

[T]o credit [the doctor’s] evidence … just because [the plaintiff] didn’t present his own expert witness would make no sense—for how could [he] find such an expert and persuade him to testify? He could not afford to pay an expert witness. He had no lawyer in the district court and has no lawyer in this court; and so throughout this litigation (now in its fourth year) he has been at a decided litigating disadvantage. He requested the appointment of counsel and of an expert witness to assist him in the litigation, pointing out sensibly that he needed “verifying medical evidence” to support his claim. The district judge denied both requests. (15)

In short:

It is heartless to make a fetish of adversary procedure if by doing so feeble evidence is credited because the opponent has no practical access to offsetting evidence. (16)


[H]ow could an unrepresented prisoner be expected to challenge the affidavit of a hostile medical doctor (in this case really hostile since he’s a defendant in the plaintiff’s suit) effectively? Is this adversary procedure? (17; emphasis in the original)

(Sorry for the block quotations, by the way. With Judge Posner, the temptation irresistible.)

Judge Posner adds that the trial court should consider appointing a lawyer for the plaintiff and a neutral expert when it hears this case ― though he does not order it, and acknowledges that the budgets both of the court and of the defendants (who might be made to pay for it all) are limited.

Judge Hamilton, dissenting in part, is not impressed with Judge Posner’s approach to this case. For him, it is “an unprecedented departure from the proper role of an appellate court [that] runs contrary to long-established law and raises a host of practical problems.” (29) He faults Judge Posner for “hav[ing] created an entirely new, third category of evidence, neither presented by the parties nor properly subject to judicial notice.” (37) Although Judge Hamilton acknowledges that “[w]hen a prisoner brings a pro se suit about medical care, the adversary process that is the foundation of our judicial system is at its least reliable,” (39) he thinks that Judge Posner’s remedy is worse than the disease. For one thing, it “turns the court from a neutral decision-maker into an advocate for one side.” (40) For another, it is not clear when or how the courts are supposed to supplement the parties’ research with their own. Judges, says judge Hamilton ― relying on an old, but on-point, quotation from Judge Posner himself ― lack the resources for acting as their own experts, and should not try.

There is still more to the opinions, including a brief concurrence arguing that the internet research is not as central to the majority opinion as it might seem, and an “appendix” by Judge Poser responding to Judge Hamilton’s critique. If you want more excerpts, Josh Blackman’s has got them. For my part, I close with a few comments.

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A few months ago, I blogged about a very interesting paper by Lisa Kerr about challenging the prison authorities’ assertions of expertise in order to secure prisoners’ rights. It was, I said, “an almost Posnerian plea for judges to be attentive to facts and, in particular, to the information that various experts can provide about prisons, when they adjudicate constitutional claims brought by prisoners, as well as for lawyers to provide judges with such information.” The reason for the epithet was that Judge Posner has long been an ardent advocate for more fact-heavy litigation.

But as I also said in a (friendly) critique of prof. Kerr’s argument, one problem with such appeals for more evidence, especially expert evidence, is that it can be very hard to come by, especially in “ordinary” cases rather than those that are designed and litigated by specialized public-interest advocacy organizations. (I also took up this point here.) Rowe is the epitome of such “ordinary” cases, because it was brought not by a prisoners-rights advocate, of the sort to whom prof. Kerr’s article is first and foremost addressed, but by a self-represented prisoner who, as Judge Posner notes, is no position to take prof. Kerr’s and Judge Posner’s advice, sound though it is in theory.

Is it right, then, for courts to effectively substitute themselves for the missing experts in such cases? Or are the dangers of partiality and unreliability too high? I’m not sure that partiality is as serious an issue as Judge Hamilton makes it out to be. In this case, neither party presented anything like solid scientific evidence. Was Judge Posner taking the plaintiff’s side when he started googling for it? I’m not convinced. Besides, for better or worse, it is already the case that judges (and their clerks) might be going the extra mile, or at least putting in the extra hour, to find plausible legal arguments in the self-represented parties’ submissions. If this is a problem ― and I’m not convinced that it is, though perhaps I’m just trying to wish away the sins of my clerkship ― it is by no means unique to scientific issues.

Reliability is a bigger worry, for me anyway. Judge Posner himself has long pointed out that most judges aren’t very good at doing science, or social science. In his “Appendix” he points at errors in Judge Hamilton’s reading of the scientific evidence in Rowe. He may well be right. But if a thoughtful appellate judge can so easily err, is it a good idea to entrust judges with this responsibility? Not every judge has Posnerian talents (and his own scientific endeavours have sometimes been criticized too).

At the same time, we have to weigh the risk of unreliability against that of manifest injustice. Judge Posner has a point when he says that the adversarial process may not be functioning when the parties’ resources are as unbalanced as they are in this case. The judges who end up “helping” self-represented litigants in one way or another, are all aware of this point, as indeed is Judge Hamilton. Is the solution in some sort of reform that would explicitly set out the rules for the judges to follow? Judge Hamilton is right that Judge Posner’s approach offers no real guidance to either litigants or judges. But perhaps the trouble is that we are still very far from having figured out what these rules should look like. And perhaps, then, it is better to let the cases develop, to let the judges argue it out, before rushing to either reaffirm the traditional rules or formulate new ones.

Legal realists said, derisively, that the law depends on what the judge who declares it ate for breakfast. That would be troubling, if true. And it seems troubling, too, that the outcomes of cases should be dictated by what the judge googled (at breakfast or any other time). But if the realists were right, the solution surely was not to prevent judges from having breakfast. A hungry judge isn’t obviously better than a satiated one. Similarly a judge who meticulously follows a diet of neutral ignorance might not be better than one sated on Google.