A compilation of Big Think experts on authoritarianism, narcissism, and the commonalities between con artists and the people we consider to be pillars of society.
BRIAN KLAAS: The people who end up in power are not representative of the rest of us: They are not average, and they are not normal. People who are power-hungry tend to self-select into positions of power more than the rest of us. And as a result, we have this skew, this bias in positions of power where certain types of people, often the wrong kinds of people, are more likely to put themselves forward to rule over the rest of us.
BILL EDDY: There are high-conflict people in the world. I see them as potentially maybe 10% of people. They're now getting into politics because they're seeing that their ability to grab attention gets them much bigger attention and gets them elected to power positions.
MARIA KONNIKOVA: You have some people who are genuine politicians. In short, to be a politician, you almost by definition need to be narcissistic and Machiavellian. I mean, if you're running for president, that's the height of narcissism, to think that you are good enough to rule a country, to run the United States. What kind of ego do you have to have to think that you're going to be good at doing that? You also had to have gotten there. So your skills of persuasion and manipulation need to be pretty well-honed.
RICHARD NIXON: 'I welcome this kind of examination because people have gotta know whether or not their president's a crook. Well, I'm not a crook.'
EDDY: These are the wrong people to put in positions of power. It's nothing about politics. These folks are Republicans, Democrats, conservatives, liberals. They're at every level of society; it's not about politics, it's about personalities, and we have to learn how to spot them.
TIMOTHY SNYDER: And start to get a handle on what the negative possibilities are because I think we're only beginning to start to see them.
KLAAS: Corruptible people are more drawn to power than the rest of us. People who are rotten and power-hungry in the first place are more likely than the average person to seek and obtain power.
EDDY: So high-conflict personalities, or people with those, and I refer to them as HCPs, have unmanaged emotions or intense emotions, and they actually shift everything to the emotional side, which helps give them power. Emotional repetition is the key to how high-conflict politicians communicate with and excite everybody. They excite their followers, but they also make their opponents angry and ineffective as they get emotionally hooked and fight with each other. But it's the emotional message, and part of it is understanding how our brains work. The parts of our brain that are paying attention the most to human emotions are the relationship parts of our brain. And so, they can form a relationship with people by doing this at an emotional level without really thinking. And in many ways, it's a seduction process. Just like a conman would seduce a woman that they want their credit card, or they wanna marry them and then spend their money on the next person. They say all these emotional things, "You're wonderful, you're beautiful, you're the best thing that ever happened to me," and high-conflict politicians say, "You're wonderful. We agree with each other. We're the best thing for each other," when in fact, it's all calculated.
KONNIKOVA: And then they engage your emotion, and they do that through the craft of storytelling. Again, you know, now we have our protagonists. Now we've got them, you know, they know that they're part of the story. I'm on their side. And now let's tell the story where they are actually acting. So they are going to be part of this script unraveling around them, and they are going to buy it because it's a story where they're the protagonist and it's the story they want, because you've done the put-up so incredibly well that you know how to tell the story that your mark wants to hear. You show them the world as they already see it, as they want it to be. So con artists are really, really wonderful at not just telling any story, but a story that grabs you and that draws you along and that makes you feel like you're really part of something bigger. Because at the end of the day, all of them, from the Monty Hustler to Bernie Madoff, to the Sweetheart Scam, to any number of scams, all of them are about hope, you know, that sort of hopefulness about the future. That's why we're so ready to believe them.
EDDY: When a high-conflict personality wants to become a leader, first of all, they don't have good problem-solving skills and they don't have good leadership skills. So what happens is to become a leader, they have to create a crisis or just say something is a crisis, say there's an evil villain over there related to this, or caused the crisis, and I'm a hero, but wait a minute- there isn't really a crisis and this person isn't really a hero, and there isn't really a villain. Today's modern problems are much too complex to be the fault of one person. So we've got so many problems, and I agree there's problems, there's always problems to solve, but there aren't all these crises. Crises make our brains think we need to follow a strong leader, and the people that want to be that strong leader are exactly the wrong people we should be following.
SNYDER: In order for there to be a democracy, there has to be something between you and me and our fellow citizens, something between you and me and our leaders, which is a factual world. We have to have this thing called the 'public sphere' where you and I and our fellow citizens and our leaders agree that there are certain realities out there. From those realities, we draw our own conclusions, our own evaluative conclusions about what would be better or worse, but we agree that the world is out there. And that's important for you and I as citizens to formulate projects, but it's also important in moments of difficulty for you and I as citizens to resist our leaders, 'cause if we're gonna resist our leaders, we have to say on the basis of this set of facts, right? This is the state of affairs, it's intolerable, therefore, we resist. If there are no facts, we can't resist; it becomes impossible.
EDDY: But what we're seeing, especially with the high-emotion media that's come in more recently with the internet, with Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, all of that, is we're shifting from reading the news and talking about it in a matter of fact manner, to high emotion, it's faces, it's voices, it grabs your attention. And it's kind of like constant advertising. You don't even have to think. Your brain absorbs this information. So we see all these leaders around the world, the ones who are the most high-conflict personality are the ones who come forward in this face and voice news environment and they grab your attention, they grab your brain and they make up stories. It doesn't matter if they're true or false, it's the best stories. And all the stories tend to have a terrible crisis and an evil villain that caused the crisis, and a superhero, that's me, the candidate. And the modern media, inadvertently, I think, is really promoting these people who would've just stayed on the fringes, who everyone would've laughed at and said, you know, "You're just way outta line here." Today, the way outta line people get the most attention, and that's not good for the future.
SNYDER: What follows from that is that if you wanna build an authoritarian regime, you try to make that factual world less salient. You try to make the world less about the facts that are between you and me and more about the emotions that will either divide us or bring us together, it doesn't really matter which. Authoritarianism depends upon people getting used to hearing the things that they wanna hear. And what it does is it takes that public sphere and dissolves it, right? It says there aren't really truths out there, there aren't really experts out there who can tell you those truths- it's really all about how you feel about the world. What the fascist ideas do with the new technology is they drive us into a situation where we think the real stakes of politics are all emotional and all about enemies, usually enemies at home, where we get ourselves all worked up about things, whether we like the government or not, but somehow we never leave our couch while we're doing it, where we leave all of our energy right in front of the screen basically, and don't actually get out and vote or organize, or think creatively about what policy might look like. Because what a social platform does, or even what a Google search does, is that it learns what it is that you wanna hear and it gives you more of that thing, and thereby slowly changes you. I mean, it shifts you away from a person who thinks there are facts out there and more towards a person who just get used to hearing the things that he or she wants to hear. You shift from being a person who could function in the public sphere, in a democracy, to a person who can't.
KONNIKOVA: We need to be very careful because the people that we call con artists are not that far removed from people we consider pillars of society. If you look at a lot of professions-politics, law, business, advertising, marketing, sales, even journalism- you start seeing a lot of the same techniques that you see in the hands of con artists.
EDDY: But realize that a whole group can get divided like that and sometimes very quickly. And we're not gonna see things in all or nothing terms. Say hang on, we need to really look at this more deeply. The problem isn't the other people, the problem is something bigger than that. Let's work together to solve the problem, because when you have good people versus bad people, you're not solving problems, you're just dividing a community and giving somebody power.
KLAAS: And that is one of the key challenges of modern life, is that we have to find ways to block them. There's this absolute intersection between culture, behavior, individuals, and systems. And so when we have this simplistic view of power, we're missing the story. What you really need is a system that attracts the right kind of people so that the diplomats who are clean and nice and rule-following end up in power. Then you need a system that gives them all the right incentives to follow the rules once they get there. And then if you do have people who break the rules, there needs to be consequences.
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