In today’s Washington Post, Shankar Vedantam reflects on the psychology that enables powerful leaders to be seduced by flattery:
In Shakespeare’s “King Lear,” a powerful man comes to a tragic end because he surrounds himself with flatterers and banishes the friends who will not varnish the truth to please him.
Several controversies in the past six years of the Bush administration — including two in the news last week — bring Lear to mind. From discrediting a covert CIA officer whose husband had criticized the invasion of Iraq to having the Justice Department find out which U.S. attorneys were “loyal Bushies,” from sidelining a general who said more troops would be needed in Iraq to silencing government scientists who advocated action against global warming, from sniping at an actuary whose numbers didn’t square with the administration’s health-care cost projections to belittling those who warned against using inhumane techniques against detainees, the Bush administration has regularly evinced a with-me-or-against-me attitude to criticism.
Psychological experiments show that nearly everyone is susceptible to the lure of ignoring criticism. We are innately drawn to those who admire us and agree with us, and inclined to dislike the people who criticize us.
There are two important differences, however, between ordinary people and the powerful. Kings, presidents and CEOs get to decide who surrounds them and what they will hear. Even those leaders who invite critics into their circle may not hear contrary views because the bravest of employees can find it difficult to tell their bosses things they do not wish to hear.
“People in high-power positions are flattered a lot, so they don’t get realistic feedback from others,” said Dutch social psychologist Roos Vonk, who has conducted experiments into how ingratiation works. “That happens a lot with politicians because they are surrounded by people who support them. They get a very unrealistic image of themselves.
“They find it difficult to tolerate people who disagree with them, and they don’t need to tolerate them, because they have high power — they can always find people who will agree with them.”
Vonk cited a Dutch proverb that summed up the phenomenon: Powerful men and beautiful women never get to hear the truth. [full text]