The Psychology of Dictatorship

Can psychology deliver us from the Hitlers of the world?

Waiting for Godot or the 'Education President'

Universities Urgently Need the 'Education President' to Come to the Rescue

 

                The huge success of Thomas Piketty’s book , Capital in the Twenty-First Century, has brought more attention to ‘the super-rich getting super-richer’. We are all aware of the global trend: the people who in the 1980s could afford a 20 million dollar yacht and a private jet can now afford several 200 million dollar yachts and a fleet of private jets. In the meantime, the middle classes have struggled to maintain the same standard of living, while the working poor have become poorer.

            Our ‘winner take all’ era is associated with a huge concentration of power and resources, as well as inevitable increases in corruption. Lord Acton (1832-1902) is generally seen as the source of the idea that ‘Power corrupts, absolute power corrupts absolutely’, and psychological research is now demonstrating he was correct.  People with power tend to overlook constraints on their actions, and they become focused on getting to their own often self-serving goals (Whitson, Loljenquist, Galinsky, Magee, Gruenfeld & Cadena, 2013). The powerful are particularly biased in how they view the world and lose sight of the perspectives of others (Overbeck & Droutman, 2013). In essence, the empirical research is showing that power often leads people to become hypocrites (Lammers, Stapel, & Galinsky, 2010). This is not a matter of being ‘left wing’ or ‘right wing’; it is simply a matter of having a monopoly over power and resources.

            The corruption brought by concentrated power is clearly evident in the evolution of the education system in the United States, as well as the United Kingdom and many other parts of the world. ‘Better education’ is costing more and more money, and becoming something that lower income families simply can’t afford even when their daughters and sons are talented. Family income is determining which university a young person will attend. This trend is crystal clear to anyone who is critically engaged with the education system. Unfortunately, this trend comes at a time when higher education institutions are in a crisis, in large part because of the enormous bureaucracies corrupting them from within.

            Ask any senior professor what the major difference is between the universities of the 1960s and 1970s and the universities of the 21st century, and they will tell you in unison: much greater bureaucracy today! Study after study has shown that university bureaucracies have grown at dramatic rates and sucked up most of the tuition increases over the last four decades. The university administrators have hired so many additional administrators because they can; power monopoly enables them! They cite ‘government regulations’ as the reason, but administrative bloat is better explained by Parkinson’s Law: “Work expands so as to fill the time available for completion”.  

            Thus, increasing resource inequalities and rapidly rising tuition costs associated with enormous administrative bloat have resulted in the ‘competitive’ universities moving beyond the reach of most talented lower-income students. Many see this as damaging or even ending the American Dream. Why are the leading politicians not taking serious steps to reform this situation?

            We are waiting, and waiting, and waiting for an ‘education president’ to solve this crisis, but it is as if we are stuck inside Samuel Beckett’s play Waiting for Godot. In fact, it would be easier to wait for Godot, because we would at least all be sure we are part of some absurdist drama. As it is, we are stuck in what is supposed to be the serious business of American politics. Most of us have a lot more hope and higher expectations than do the characters in Waiting for Godot; that is why it is even more difficult to wait for the ‘Education President’ than it is to wait for Godot.

The ‘business as usual’ politicians will not be able to find a solution; they are not able to overcome the corrupting influence of power. George Washington, Nelson Mandela…these rare leaders had power monopoly and were not corrupted, but they are few and far between. There is an urgent need for such leadership now. We need an ‘Education President’ who will move us to see and realize new possibilities in re-shaping higher education. There are now serious efforts to re-design universities from within, but these efforts will only succeed if an ‘Education President’ takes residence in the White House and provides inspired leadership.

 

Research Cited

Lammers, J., Stapel, D. A., & Galinsky, A. D. (2010). Power increases hypocrisy: Moralizing in

reasoning, immorality in behavior. Psychological Science, 21, 737-744.

Overbeck, J. R., & Droutman, V. (2013). One for all: Social power increases self-anchoring of

traits, attitudes, and emotions. Psychological Science, 24, 1466-1476.

Piketty, T. (2014). Capital in the twenty-first century. (Translator: A. Goldhammer). Cambridge,

MA.: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press.

Whitson, J. A., Loljenquist, K. A., Galinsky, A. D., Magee, J. C., Gruefeld, D. H., & Cadena, B. (

2013). The blind leading: Power reduces awareness of constraints. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 49, 579-582.

Fathali M. Moghaddam, Ph.D., is a professor in the Department of Psychology and the director of the Conflict Resolution Program, Department of Government at Georgetown University.

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