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When The Titanic set sail exactly 100 years ago today, nobody imagined that just six days later, the ship they said was unsinkable would do the unthinkable. It hit an ice berg and sank. And ever since its name has been synonymous with failure.
The sad thing about the event is that the signs of impending disaster were there for all to see. Unfortunately, the people who should have seen them chose to ignore them. It's called the 'paradox of power' and one hundred years on, we're still trying to understand why it happens.
Dacher Keltner, a psychologist at the University of California, tried to shed light on the problem by conducting an experiment with students at the start of the new academic year. Along with free pizza, he asked them to give their first impressions of every other student in their dorm. At the end of the school year, Keltner returned with the same survey and more pizza. Comparing the results, he discovered that the students at the top of the social hierarchy who were the most 'powerful' and 'respected' were also the most considerate and outgoing, and scored highest on measures of agreeableness and extroversion. In other words, the nice guys finished first.
From this he concluded that people give authority to people they genuinely like. But to test the theory further, primatologist Frans de Waal extended the experiment to chimpanzees. I can't say for certain if they were coerced with pizza or peanuts, but the results were remarkably similar. It was discovered that the size and strength of male chimps is a poor indicator of which animals will dominate the troop. Instead, the ability to forge social connections and engage in 'diplomacy' is often much more important. Staring in a few PG Tips ads also helps enormously.
However, there's a 'but'. You see, whilst empathising helps us climb the corporate ladder, once at the top we end up morphing into a very different kind of beast. I'm talking humans again now not primates. To explain this, Keltner compares the feeling of power to brain damage, noting that people with lots of authority tend to behave like neurological patients with a damaged orbito-frontal lobe, a brain area that's crucial for empathy and decision-making.
Apparently, once bestowed with authority, we become less sympathetic to the concerns and emotions of others. Instead, we often rely on stereotypes and generalisations and spend much less time making eye contact, particularly when a person without power is talking.
So how does this explain the Titanic disaster and the huge loss of life? Well, powerful men in positions of great responsibility simply chose to do the wrong thing. J Bruce Ismay, Managing Director of the White Star Line, ordered that the Titanic's lifeboats be cut from 48 to just 16 despite it carrying more than 2,000 passengers. Why? Because he was sure they would not be needed.
Ismay took another bad decision in appointing his friend, Henry Wilde as Chief Officer at the last minute. This meant that Chief Officer William Murdoch was demoted to First Officer and Second Officer Charles Lightoller made Third Officer. Second Officer David Blair was asked to leave the ship. And took with him the key to the cabinet that held the binoculars on the bridge. And if the look out, Fred Fleet, had had binoculars on the fateful night of April 14 he would have sent the iceberg before he did.
And the disaster would have been avoided.
And no, I am not making that up.
Captain Edward Smith knew there was a major ice field ahead but kept the ship at 20 knots - too fast to avoid an iceberg when the look out had no binoculars. Jack Phillips the wireless operator, was too busy sending telegrams from First Class passengers to notice a key ice warning. And when the warning message was finally picked and taken to the bridge it was not seen by Captain Smith. He was busy having dinner with the wealthy George and Eleanor Widener.
I could go on. It was an abuse of power that directly led to the deaths of 1,509 people.
A hundred years on and it seems that lessons have still not been learned. It is claimed that Captain Francesco Schettino was not wearing his glasses on the evening when the Costa Concordia ran aground last January. He asked his first officer to check the radar for him. Presumably, he wasn't wearing his either. And there's also a suggestion that the captain's attentions were maybe more focused on the blonde dancer, Domnica Cemortan, with whom he was having a relationship. He has since acknowledged that he brought the ship too close to the shore and should have pulled out much earlier. She declined to comment.
There is no easy cure for what is known as 'the paradox of power'. But if there is transparency and people know they're being monitored, it can help discourage them from doing bad things. People in power tend to reliably overestimate their moral virtue, which leads them to stifle oversight. They lobby against regulators, and fill corporate boards with their friends. The end result is power at its most dangerous.
It's the message at the heart of my book. 'The Seven Golden Rules' which talks about the lessons we could and should have learned from the reigns of Henry VIII, his three children and, of course, the tragedy of 'The Titanic' that set sail on its fateful journey 100 years ago today.
Philip Hesketh is a professional speaker on the psychology of persuasion and influence.