Authoritarian Sociopathy

August 23rd, 2013   Submitted by Davi Barker


Many anarchists and libertarians eagerly study the psychology of tyrants in an effort to know their enemy in the battlefield of politics. Getting into the minds of our enemy is regarded as a strategy, a means to our political ends… which is an end to political means. However, I would suggest that the mind of our enemy is the battlefield itself, and politics is merely one of many strategies. We cannot fight the State with votes, or with cameras, or even with rifles, because factually the State only exists in the mind.

Our common definition for the State is a “monopoly on violence.” This was originally coined by German political philosopher Max Weber, affirmed by Austrian economist Murray Rothbard in his book Anatomy of the State, and even echoed by authoritarian sociopath Barack Obama while campaigning in 2007. This definition is seldom disputed, even by the agents of the State. However, as surely as a pickpocket can knife you in the ribs, the State does not factually enjoy a monopoly on violence. The missing component is an often overlooked, but all important adjective: legitimate. The State is a monopoly on legitimate violence, and legitimacy is the only thing distinguishing a tax collector from a pickpocket, a police officer from a vigilante, or a soldier from a paid murderer. Legitimacy is an illusion in the mind without which the State does not even exist.

This illusion not only exists in the minds of the authoritarians, it exists in the minds of every subject who accepts their oppression. And every place that this illusion finds safe harbor is a trench in the field of battle. If we want to attack the State, we must attack the mind of the Statists. For that reason, the psychology of obedience and authority is not merely a tool in the activists utility belt, it is a topographical map of the battle field itself. So let’s take a look.

Power and Obedience

We’ve all heard of the Milgram Experiment and the Stanford Prison Experiment. I’ve written about them before. So as not to waste your time, I’ll summarize very briefly.

In the Milgram Experiment participants were divided into “teachers” and “learners” and placed in separate rooms. “Teachers” were instructed to read questions to the “learners” and if they answered incorrectly to administer an elecro-shock of ever increasing voltage. The “teachers” were unaware that electro-shocks were fake. After a few volts the “learner” began to object, to complain of a heart condition, and ultimately go silent. If the “teacher” asked to stop he was told by the experimenter,” “the experiment requires that you continue.” 65% administered the experiment’s maximum massive 450-volt shock. The vast majority were willing to administer a lethal jolt of electricity to a complete stranger based upon nothing but the verbal prodding of an authority figure.

In the Stanford Prison Experiment participants were screened for mental health and randomly assigned as “prisoner” or “guard” to live in a two week long prison simulation. Guards were given uniforms, mirrored glasses, and wooden batons. Prisoners were dressed in smocks and addressed only by their prison numbers. Guards were instructed only to keep a fixed schedule, and that they could not physically harm prisoners. The experiment was halted after only six days because guards began to display cruel, even sadistic behavior including spraying prisoners with fire extinguishers, depriving them of bedding or restroom privileges, forcing them to go nude and locking them in “solitary confinement” in a dark closet. After an initial revolt, and a brief hunger strike, prisoners developed submissive attitudes, accepting physical abuse, and readily following orders inflict punishments on each other. They even engaged in horizontal discipline to keep each other in line. Both prisoners and guards fully internalized their fictional identities.

Ethical concerns raised by these experiments has made it almost impossible to study the authoritarian sociopathy in any meaningful way. Still, there have been some more recent studies that flesh out the findings of these classic experiments. Because of the new ethical guidelines the more recent experiments are not as dramatic, but the implications of their results are no less startling.

Power and Deception

Dana Carney is a professor at Columbia University. She conducted an experiment to discover if “leaders” and “subordinates” experience the same physiological stress while lying. She found that power not only makes lying easier, but pleasurable.

Participants filled out a personality test that identified them as “leaders” or “subordinates.” In reality the selection was random, but the fake test created an air of legitimacy to their assignment. Leaders were placed in a large executive office and given an hour of busy work. Subordinates were placed in a small windowless cubical and given an hour of busy work. Then they engaged in a 10 minute mock negotiation over pay.

Afterwards half the participants were given $100 and told they could keep it if they lied and convinced the lead experimenter that they didn’t have it. The experimenter did not know who had the money.

For most people lying elicits negative emotions, cognitive impairment, physiological stress, and nonverbal behavioral cues, which can all be measured. Video of the interviews was reviewed to identify behavioral cues. Saliva samples were tested for increases in the stress hormone cortisol. Tests of reaction time were conducted on the computer to demonstrate cognitive impairment. And a mood survey assessed participants’ emotional states during the experiment.

By every measure “subordinates” exhibited all the indicators of deception, but liars in the “leader” class exhibited the exact opposite. By every measure “leaders” were indistinguishable from truth-tellers. In fact, they enjoyed reduced stress levels, increased cognitive function and reported positive emotions. Only “subordinates” reported feeling bad about lying.

Professor Carney concludes, “Power will lead to increases in intensity and frequency of lying.”

Lying comes easier, and is inherently more pleasurable, to those in power, even fake authority. In other words, power rewards dishonesty with pleasure.

Power and Compassion

Psychologist Gerben A. Van Kleef from the University of Amsterdam conducted an experiment to identify how power influences emotional reactions to the suffering of others. Participants filled out a questionnaire about their own sense of power in their actual lives and were identified as “high-power” and “lower-power” individuals. Then they were randomly paired off to take turns sharing personal stories of great pain, or emotional suffering.

During the exchange the stress levels of both participants was measured by electrocardiogram (ECG) machines, and afterward they filled out a second questionnaire describing their own emotional experience, and what they perceived of their partner’s emotional experienced.

You guessed it. Increased stress in the story teller correlated with increased stress in listener for low-power subjects, but not for high-power subjects. In other words, low-power individuals experienced the suffering of others, but high-power individuals experienced greater detachment. After the experiment high-power listeners self-reported being unmotivated to empathize with their partner. In other words, they saw the emotions of others, but they just didn’t care. After the experiment, researchers inquired about whether participants would like to stay in touch with their partners. As you might expect, the low-power subjects liked the idea, but the high-power subjects didn’t.

Power and Hypocrisy

It has become almost a cliche that the most outspoken anti-gay politicians are in fact closet homosexuals themselves, and the champions of “traditional family values” are engaged in extramarital affairs. Nothing is more common than the fiscal conservative who demands ridiculous luxuries at the taxpayer’s expense, or the anti-war progressive who takes campaign donations from the military industrial complex. Well, now it seems there’s some science behind the hypocrisy of those in power.

Joris Lammers, from Tilburg University, and Adam Galinsky of Kellogg School of Management conducted a battery of five experiments to test how power influences a person’s moral standards, specifically whether they were likely to behave immorally while espousing intolerance for the behavior of others. In each of five experiments the results were about what you’d expect. Powerful people judge others more harshly but cheat more themselves. But in the last experiment they distinguished between legitimate power and illegitimate power and got the opposite results.

In the first experiment subjects were randomly assigned to as “high-power” or “low-power.” To induce these feelings “high-power” subjects were asked to recall an experience where they felt powerful, and “low-power” subjects were asked to recall an experience where they felt powerless. They were asked to rate how immoral they considered cheating, and then they were given an opportunity to cheat at dice. The high-power subjects considered cheating a higher moral infraction than low-power subjects, but were also more likely to cheat themselves.

In the second experiment participants conducted a mock-government. Half were randomly assigned as “high-power” roles which gave orders to the half randomly given “low-power” roles. Then each group was asked about minor traffic violations, such as speeding, or rolling through stop signs. As expected, high-power subjects were more likely to to bend the rules themselves, but less likely to afford other drivers the same leniency.

In the third experiment participants were divided as in the first experiment, by recalling a personal experience. Each group was asked about their feelings about minor common tax evasions, such as not declaring freelance income. As expected, high-power subjects were more willing to bend the rules themselves, but less likely to afford others the same leniency.

In the fourth experiment participants were asked to complete a series of word puzzles. Half the participants were randomly given puzzles containing high-power words, and the other half were given puzzles containing low power words. Then all participants were asked what they’d do if they found an abandoned bike on the side of the road. As in all experiments, even with such an insignificant power disparity, those in the high-power group were more likely to say they would keep the bike, but also that others had an obligation to seek out the rightful owner, or turn the bike over to the police.

The fifth and final experiment yielded, by far, the most interesting results. The feeling of power was induced the same as the first and third experiment, where participants describe their own experience of power in their life, with one important distinction. This time the “high-power” class was divided in two. One group was asked to describe an experience of legitimate power, and the other was asked to describe an experience of illegitimate power.

The legitimate high-power group showed the same hypocrisy as in the previous four experiments. But those who viewed their power as illegitimate actually gave the opposite results. Researchers dubbed it “hypercrisy.” They were harsher about their own transgressions, and more lenient toward others. This discovery could be the silver bullet we’ve been looking for. The researchers speculate that the vicious cycle of power and hypocrisy could be broken by attacking the legitimacy of power, rather than the power itself. As they write in their conclusion:

“A question that lies at the heart of the social sciences is how this status-quo (power inequality) is defended and how the powerless come to accept their disadvantaged position. The typical answer is that the state and its rules, regulations, and monopoly on violence coerce the powerless to do so. But this cannot be the whole answer… Our last experiment found that the spiral of inequality can be broken, if the illegitimacy of the power-distribution is revealed. One way to undermine the legitimacy of authority is open revolt, but a more subtle way in which the powerless might curb self enrichment by the powerful is by tainting their reputation, for example by gossiping. If the powerful sense that their unrestrained self enrichment leads to gossiping, derision, and the undermining of their reputation as conscientious leaders, then they may be inspired to bring their behavior back to their espoused standards. If they fail to do so, they may quickly lose their authority, reputation, and— eventually—their power.”

Those in power are more likely to lie, cheat and steal while also being harsher in their judgments of others for doing these things. They feel less compassion for the suffering of others, and are even capable of the torture and murder of innocent people. What’s perhaps most disturbing is that we have seen that the problem is not that sociopaths are drawn to positions of authority, but that positions of authority draw out the sociopath in everyone. But this final experiment offers some hope that authoritarian sociopathy can not only be stopped, but driven into reverse, not by violence or revolution, but simply by undermining their legitimacy. But how?

Reclaiming Lost Ground

Those who attack the legitimacy of the authority by trumpeting the results of the Stanford Prison Experiment and the Milgram Experiment have likely never heard of these  other experiments because they’re just less dramatic. Without the shock value the research just doesn’t impact the culture. Changes to the ethical guidelines have essentially neutered research on authoritarian sociopathy. It has been relegated to the water cooler banter of academics.

If the illegitimate ethical guidelines of legacy institutions hamstring meaningful research on authoritarian sociopathy then it is time for us to cast off such restrictions, and devise our own guidelines consistent with our own ethics. If court professors will not spread their findings beyond their classrooms and peer reviewed journals then it is time to conduct our own renegade psychological experiments, to show the world beyond doubt that power corrupts absolutely.

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22 Responses to “Authoritarian Sociopathy”

  1. Great article, Davi. I recently published one here that is relevant to this subject as well:

  2. Nice piece. This really illustrates a lot of what I experienced first hand in my unfortunate years as a lobbyist for several NGOs. While talking with politicians, I was always amazed at how relaxed and comfortable so-called “leadership” members were while exerting so much psychological pressure on others. “Rank and file” members are, in general, completely terrorized by leadership, running mainly on fear.
    The body language is always interesting to watch–the way leadership members shake hands for instance. They almost always shake hands while using their left hand to grasp the forearm or shoulder of the other person to indicate control.

  3. VanmindNo Gravatar says:

    Great stuff, Mr. Barker, thanks.

  4. Seth KingNo Gravatar says:

    Fascinating article!

    It makes sense, now that you mention it, that those in power would not want any more experiments done that unveil truths about the psychology of power.

    I like how you mention the silver bullet being the difference between perceived legitimate and illegitimate power. It’s what voluntaryists have going for them… that it’s not WHO’S in charge of government that matters, but that there’s a government at all.

    This also actually touches on employer/employee relationships. When the economy is in the toilet and jobs are scarce, employers are worse to their employees because they know the employee can easily be replaced. But when the economy is good and jobs are aplenty, the employer must offer better compensation and more respect to their employees. I mention this, because even though the employer’s power is legitimate in both cases, it’s clear that the amount of power an employer has is greatly diminished in times when competition for employees is greatest.

  5. Michael HendricksNo Gravatar says:

    I’ve had a vague sense for a while now that we need to be arguing against “legitimate” authority. I’ve been putting “legitimate” in quotes for a while. I’m sure most people that read this article do the same thing. But this article brought it to the forefront of my cognition.

    Great article Davi!

    • Davi BarkerNo Gravatar says:

      You know what would be an interesting low budget experiment. Devise a scenario where low power subjects are given written instructions to follow the orders of high power subjects to create some very simple instance of willful obedience. In one group give them all normally written instructions, nothing unethical, just something they probably won’t want to do. In the second group give them the same exact written instructions, except everywhere the authority figure is mentioned put it in quotes. See if they object more.

      • Michael HendricksNo Gravatar says:

        I like it…

      • Seth KingNo Gravatar says:

        Does anybody know if any experiments have been done where a person willfully follows orders to harm themselves?

        • Michael HendricksNo Gravatar says:

          Do you think that can be done? Or are you pointing out the reducto ad absurdem present in the logic of “legitimate authority”?

          • Seth KingNo Gravatar says:

            I’m just curious if it’s ever been done. I mean, people are all too willing to enforce commands when it harms somebody else. But would they be willing to enforce a command to harm themselves? And if not, why not? Also, if they don’t really believe in the chain of command enough to harm themselves, could this be used as a tool to get them to stop harming others?

            • Michael HendricksNo Gravatar says:

              Your last question is the reducto ad absurdem I was thinking about. It might be a lever we can use.

        • Davi BarkerNo Gravatar says:

          In some sense the prisoners in the Stanford Prison Experiment willfully hurt themselves. They were completely aware it was an experiment, reminded repeatedly that they were free to leave at any time, and ordered to do all kinds of harmful things both to each other and to themselves.

          Although, if a person is willing to follow orders to harm others but unwilling to follow orders to harm themselves that speaks to culpability in my mind. Zimbardo tries to argue that these results absolve the obedient of responsibility, which strikes me as nonsense.

          • Michael HendricksNo Gravatar says:

            I agree that it’s nonsense. Whose responsible for the actions of the actor if not the actor themselves?

  6. ElespartoNo Gravatar says:

    Long live Spartacus!!! he was the ultimate anarchist…

  7. TomNo Gravatar says:

    Perhaps the most notorious historical example of people willingly following commands to harm themselves is that of the Japanese kamikaze pilots.They were, of course, said to be volunteers but their commanders would say that, wouldn’t they?

    • Seth KingNo Gravatar says:

      Good example. I hadn’t thought of that.

    • KeithNo Gravatar says:

      I gather that the “volounteering” involved a ballot paper which had two options:
      “Very willing”
      Refusal lead to immediate execution and posthumous disgrace.

  8. CodyNo Gravatar says:

    Max Weber is the “Father of Western Sociology;” not simply a philosopher. He was a bitter enemy of Karl Marx, who for some perverted reason gets the title of “Father of Sociology” in “Western” Academia. To misunderstand Weber is to misunderstand how European bureaucracy wound up consuming American government. Understand the bureaucracy then you’ll comprehend the system of “controlled domination.”

  9. ED CURTISNo Gravatar says:

    this is exactly what I see and the soft underbelly that needs to be exploited by all to end this. I made a farce site but am kicking my states ass with it!
    AFTER 1-1-14, YOU WILL BE NAMED on my site.
    START HERE; is-poisoning-you/
    This is some of what I KNOW, I only hope you do not know!

  10. Thank you for this article. I have a friend who has cracked power’s seeming immunity to questioning. It’s http://songsfortheotherkind/blog/blog
    The sui generis is the most concise and incontrovertible way of expressing each individual’s inherent exemption from the imposition of the wills of others.

    Love this article,

  11. JasonNo Gravatar says:

    You are all now dumber, having read this article.

  12. Todd WNo Gravatar says:

    re-Jason “you are all now dumber…..” Please explain further with factual statements why reading this article “dumbs” one down and state those facts with specificity and particularity. Indulge us…. please