Have you ever railed at corrupt politicians or megalomaniac business leaders? Are there times when you think your boss is selfish, power-hungry or even a bona fide psychopath? 

So often the people in charge of us seem ill-suited to the responsibilities they hold.

I’ve spent decades looking at these questions. I’ve explored who gets power, why they get it and how they behave when they achieve it.

Is it, as the old adage would tell us, that power corrupts? Well, possibly, but I’ve had my doubts.

Another, more troubling, thought has been gnawing at me instead – that something much bigger and more serious is lurking beneath the waves. That power-hungry narcissists are actively seeking out positions that give them control over others.

Such people certainly appear to be well represented in positions of leadership, from the highest offices of state down to the most junior roles in company management. More worryingly still, for deep evolutionary reasons, the rest of us do our very best to help them achieve the power they then abuse.

Have you ever railed at corrupt politicians or megalomaniac business leaders? Are there times when you think your boss is selfish, power-hungry or even a bona fide psychopath?

Are you a snitch at corrupt politicians and megalomaniacal business leaders? Is there ever a time when your boss seems selfish, power-hungry, or even a true psychopath to you?

These were the pretend guards at prison who mistreated their prisoners

The famous psychological experiment of the 1970s illustrates the point. Researchers at Stanford University in California recruited a group of men and told half of them they were ‘guards’, the other half ‘prisoners. It was dramatic. 

They began to humiliate the inmates, burning them with matches, forcing them onto concrete floors and threatening them with death.

It was so bad that they had to stop the experiment before it got too late. The world was shocked when the results were made public.

It was obvious that there were demons inside all of us. And those in positions of authority are able to set them free.

Consider this. To find their volunteers, researchers had placed newspaper adverts headed: ‘Male college students needed for a psychological study of prison life.’

The wording could have led to a skew in the numbers of those taking part. In 2007, researchers looked into the matter and found an interesting result. It turned out that people who respond to adverts containing the word ‘prison’ are not the same as those who respond to similar adverts that refer to psychological studies.

In fact, those who were drawn in by the word ‘prison’ scored significantly higher on measures of aggressiveness, authoritarianism, Machiavellianism, narcissism and social dominance and significantly lower on empathy and altruism.

It raises a fascinating question – while we always assumed that power corrupts, is it possible that corrupt and corruptible people seek out power? That power isn’t a force that turns good people bad, but a magnet that attracts bad people?

A notorious psychological experiment from the 1970s helps make the point. Researchers at Stanford University in California recruited a group of men and told half of them they were ¿guards¿, the other half ¿prisoners. The results were dramatic

The famous psychological experiment of the 1970s illustrates the point. Researchers at Stanford University in California recruited a group of men and told half of them they were ‘guards’, the other half ‘prisoners. It was dramatic!

The roll of a die can help you spot corruption

In India, hundreds of students were recruited to participate in a study. The task was simple: Roll a 42-sided dice and keep track of the results.

Before they played, however, the students were told they’d be paid more if they rolled higher numbers. Some students cheated wholesale – the number six was recorded 25 per cent of the time, while the number one was recorded only ten per cent of the time. Some students claimed that they had rolled 6es 42 consecutive times.

There was one twist to this story: cheats had career goals that were different from honest reporters. Those with bogus high scores were much more likely to aspire to join India’s notoriously corrupt civil service.

The results of a Danish research team that conducted similar experiments in Denmark were reversed. Denmark is known for its transparent civil service. The honest students wanted to become civil servants. They wanted to be rich and successful in their chosen profession. 

Even 5-year-olds are drawn to strong men. 

We allow it to happen. Why is it that corrupt narcissists are so prevalent in high-ranking positions?

This is due to the fact that our ideas of leadership are ingrained in us from our childhoods. A Swiss study asked children aged five- to thirteen to choose a captain from an imagined ship. They were asked to do this using two screens.

What the children didn’t know was that the two captains weren’t random – the faces belonged to the winner and runner-up politicians in recent French parliamentary elections.

Amazingly, 71% of children chose the winning candidate.

Similar results were obtained with adult subjects in the same experiment.

In other words, who looks like the role is an important part of our selection process for leaders. This is partly a matter cultural. But, across the globe, it’s clear that men who are tall, confident, and powerful have an advantage. 

And for that, we can thank our ancestors 

Part of the problem, it seems, is that our brains haven’t changed since the Stone Age. Over the past 8,000 years, there have been about 7980 generations. These people lived in large societies with strength and size.

The brain wires of our brains favor people that look good in hunting gazelles or sabre tooth tigers.

Our world has changed but our brains haven’t. It’s even more problematic when you combine those Stone Age biases and modern-day racism, sexism and other forms of discrimination.

Short men struggle, too. Alexander the Great gave an audience to Sisygambis, a captured Persian princess more than 2000 years ago. Alexander was accompanied at the time by Hephaestion (a taller friend). Sisygambis immediately knelt in front of Hephaestion, mistakingly believing that Hephaestion was the king.

It was thought that height could predict status, and this is still true today. American presidents have a consistent higher height than the men who were in their place. Presidents who are taller have higher chances of winning re-election.

And it’s not just height that affects our judgment. How baby-faced a person appears can affect how they are judged. There’s evidence, for example, that judges and juries treat baby-faced defendants as less culpable for their actions. For political or business leaders, baby-faced defendants may seem weak. 

Let’s not talk too much about you. 

Not only do selfish people seek power, they are particularly good at obtaining it thanks to a combination of traits known as ‘the dark triad’: they’re Machiavellian, narcissistic and psychopathic – which often means they lack empathy, are impulsive, reckless, manipulative and aggressive.

Yet such people can also be charming, charismatic and ruthlessly focused – key qualities for success in job interviews.

They love talking about themselves, so a job interview can be a great opportunity. Even if that means fabricating lies or falsifying credentials, they plan how to achieve their goals.

Oxford University researcher Kevin Dutton says that the top ten occupations with most psychopaths include chief executives, lawyers and TV personalities, television and radio personality, doctors, nurses, and surgeons. 

According to another study, those who possess dark triad tend to be attracted not only in sales, finance, or law but also in leadership roles.

Others have also found Washington DC as the region with the greatest number of psychopaths per capita in America.

When you shake hands, as I have, with a rebel commander who committed war crimes, or 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 are often charming and make jokes. They don’t appear to be monsters, but many are.

What makes us let confident fools take the lead?

However, not all bosses can be considered psychopaths. Not at all. These people could only be confident fools and they are plentiful. Yet show us certainty in the face of uncertainty and we’re sold.

Nature published a paper recently arguing that people have too much confidence because of how it helped them survive. In the days of food scarcity, trying something – even a long shot – in the battle to survive was better than doing nothing. Leaders who were confident in their abilities encouraged groups to do the same.

If someone tells you there’s a waterhole on the other side of the savanna, and you’re already dying of thirst, inaction is usually at least as bad as following someone with a false sense of certainty.

Numerous studies have demonstrated that overconfident but incompetent individuals can rapidly attain social status within experimental groups.

Often wrong but never uncertain – it remains a winning strategy in far too much of our world.

Make sure you shine a light on those dark corners of offices

History  has consistently taught us that people who know they are being monitored behave better.

Yet in today’s corporate and political systems, it is the workers who are scrutinised, not the bosses.

Too often, the most closely watched employees at corporate headquarters tend to be those with the lowest likelihood of causing serious harm.

The opaque nature of corner offices and boardrooms remains.

Yet today’s watchers are the very people who should feel watched themselves.

If people at power were more concerned about their corrupt actions, the world would be better.

The headlines change the world

Newspapers are important, especially local papers. It is possible that people will fear less local and regional journalism if they are removed.

Uganda offers an important lesson. The audit of East African countries’ education spending revealed that 8 out of 10 dollars allotted to schools were being stolen. It was not the children that were being funded, but corruption.

The theft made headlines and soon only $2 was taken from every $10.

But here’s the crucial bit: embezzlement decreased most in places that were near newspaper distributors. Only if the public could read about corrupt officials, did it really matter?

The powerful can feel even worse if they don’t write the stories or read them.

It is now that you can do something about it

Are there so many evil people in power? It is a particularly urgent puzzle to solve because we’re constantly disappointed by those in power.

However, nothing can be set in stone. People with more experience can guide us.

Our ability to hire more intelligently is possible. It is possible to remind leaders about the importance of their responsibilities. It is possible to make leaders see people not as abstractions but as individuals.

To prevent and detect abuse, we can make rotations of personnel. Random tests can be used to identify bad apples.

And if we’re going to watch people, we can focus on those at the top who do the real damage, not the rank-and-file.

By focusing our efforts on the right reforms and taking the necessary steps, we can reverse the trend and push out corrupt people seeking power.

No matter what our Stone Age brains may tell us, there’s a better way.

Corruptible: Who Gets Power And How It Changes Us, by Brian Klaas, is published by John Murray on January 6, priced £20.