The Worst You’ve Seen Isn’t the Worst There Is

In a reasonably well-functioning society, most people have few opportunities to profit from doing something really bad; it almost certainly wouldn’t be worth your while to kill somebody even if you had nothing in your ideology or in your character to prevent you from doing so.  This means that for most people in such societies the negative experiences that they will have had at the hands of others will have been comparatively minor: inattentiveness, insensitivity, manipulativeness, glory-hogging, and so on.  Since strong negative emotions tend to be about bad hings that people have actually experienced, these evils will tend to be the most salient, and so be the ones that people are most on the lookout for when making judgments about others.

This can be a serious bias when the person you are trying to judge is likely to have an opportunity to benefit from doing something really bad.  This is the case in some personal relationships like marriage or business partnership, but the obvious example is politics; politicians have enormous scope to abuse their power, and this fact attracts people who would like to do so, so there is a decent chance that a candidate for high political office, especially a chief executive, is a serious bad apple, even if the proportion of bad apples in the pool from which politicians are drawn is low (which I daresay it often isn’t).  So among the most important signals that people should be looking for in a political candidate is whether they are keen to abuse power.  That may be hard to do even in the best of circumstances, but it’s made harder by the fact that people don’t have a separate character-judging template that they trot out special for judging politicians; they just use the template that they use in everyday life, which is good for things like figuring out which co-worker might try to take credit for your work on a project (and so might serve to screen out a candidate who is a relatively harmless glory-hog), but which is terrible for things like figuring who might decide to go around promiscuously killing people (and so might serve to let through a candidate who is a monster).

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  • It is not clear to me why you think the temptation to benefit from harm is stronger in a politician than in a CEO, a school principle, a pastor/priest, or any other social leader.

  • Don’t know about the temptation per se, but when dealing with a politician we might suspect greater skill at concealment, greater drive on average, and a stronger impulse toward universalization.

  • Stuart Armstrong

    politicians have enormous scope to abuse their power
    With the press as it is today, I’d say that politicians have far less scope to abuse their power that CEO’s and other powerful figures. My impression is that politicians are more obssesed with gaining and keeping power, far above “abusing it” or often even “using it”.

  • David J. Balan

    Nothing about the post requires that we be talking specifically about politicians, but I do think that is the most important example, because it is mostly politicians who have the power to make war and put people in jail and stuff like that.

  • Stuart Armstrong

    Should people from war-torn or disintegrating countries be considered more reliable judges of candidates? Somalian refugees could be interviewed on the news for their impressions of politicians. Maybe psychiatrists and prison guards could also be asked their opinion.
    Or are there other biases that would render this information valueless?

  • Paul Gowder

    Robin: the cost of being a successful politician is much higher than being a successful school principal, priest, etc. (Possibly the same with respect to CEOs. The competition for successful politician jobs is much more intense, it requires long-term and pervasive kinds of reputation/human capital investment, like getting into the party organization and paying your dues, being careful never to be caught smoking a joint, marrying right, etc. At the same time, the formal salaries for those jobs are rather low compared to what someone with similar talent and less investment would be able to make on the market. So one has reason to suspect that politicians are motivated by some other set of payoffs, either altruistic ones or evil ones…