Your Neurochemical Self

Getting real with a 200-million-year-old brain

“I Thought I Could Get Away With It”

What is a corrupt leader thinking? How can voters do better?

 

Blagojevich didn't say “I thought I could get away with it” on the famous tape. But surely he was thinking that or he wouldn’t have done it. What leads a person to arrive at such a conclusion?

Expectations: The brain projects past experience into the future. If you get away with corrupt practices for years, you expect to continue getting way with it. You tell yourself “everybody does it,” and start taking it for granted. 

Grandiosity: I’m special. They love me. Bad things won’t happen to me. Children think this way until experience teaches them otherwise. If you don’t learn early from small consequences, you learn later from bigger consequences.

Risk-seeking: While some people are risk-averse, others seek out and enjoy risk. When they win a gamble, they seek out bigger risks. The short-term thrill blinds them to the potential long-term consequences.

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When Power Corrupts

Rod Blagojevich gets 14 years in federal prison.

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So how can the voters of Illinois get themselves an honest governor? 

Create new expectations: A rat learns to expect a shock when he goes for the cheese on the wrong side of the cage. Leaders can learn to expect trouble when they break the law. The mind learns from rewards and from pain. When lots of cheese is lying around, it can take lots of pain to establish the limits. 

Don’t vote for grandiose candidates: It’s hard to assess a candidate’s true personality since they are so heavily coached, but after the fact, you see the red flags...

Checks and balances: Humans have a narrow frame of reference, so we need others to keep us in check. At any gambling table, random chance weeds out some individuals early on, while others win round after round. The “winners” start believing in their own invincibility, even when it’s a crap shoot. They are not going to correct themselves. 

Historical perspective on corruption is important. In the past, leaders ruled with an iron fist. They helped themselves to whatever you had, including your wife and daughter. If you resisted they eliminated you, so most people cooperated. Slowly over time, expectations rose, and so did enforcement skills. Public outrage helps when it’s channeled into institutional practices rather than personalized animosity. But it’s good to temper outrage with a sense of accomplishment. Most leaders don’t do what Blagojevich did because the shock isn’t worth the cheese.

More on this in my books Beyond Cynical: Transcend Your Mammalian Negativity and I, Mammal: Why Your Brain Links Status and Happiness.

 

 

Loretta Graziano Breuning, Ph.D., is a Zoo Docent and Professor Emerita of Management at California State University, East Bay. 

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