Why Do Officials Who Break the Rules Think They Can Get Away with It?

December 14, 2016

Nearly every day we read about some official — the head of a college, a business, a religious organization or a government agency — caught breaking the rules.  Why do such smart people (and the people I am referring to have to be smart to get into their positions of power), take such risks? And, why don’t they spend more effort trying to cover their tracks? I think I may have some of the answers.

When someone rises to the top in any endeavor they typically are exceptionally talented, for in most fields the top spot is not a plateau but a peak, which the majority of people don’t even try to reach. Those who do seek the peak usually don’t succeed. How do those who do make it explain their success?

They have two possibilities: they can think that they really are much better than everyone else or that they are luckier. If they attribute it to luck, even in part, they have to live with the uncertainty of whether, in the words of the song, “Luck [will] be a lady tonight”. They can avoid worrying about luck’s capriciousness by over-emphasizing the importance of their unique talents and under-emphasizing the role of luck.

Such thinking is vulnerable to another related but mistaken self-evaluation. A string of successes, whether it be throwing the dice or breaking the rules, may create the belief that you are charmed, you can and always will get away with it. Gamblers know that luck runs out, you may be ‘hot’ and then suddenly without notice turn ‘cold’. If you think it was only your talent that made you hot, you won’t recognize your vulnerability of turning cold.

You may think that rules don’t apply to you and even if they do that your talents will allow you to evade them and go scot-free. Such thinking encourages taking risks that inevitably results in being caught, as increasingly dangerous risks are undertaken. Why? Because you need to feel the thrill of being at risk. It is exciting; and risk-takers can become addicted to that excitement. But as with addictions to drugs, the excitement decreases unless the dosage –- the risk in this case — keeps being increased.  The problem is that may lead to an overdose!

I suspect that those who become addicted to the thrills of risk-taking inevitably crash. They join the bandwagon of embarrassed, humiliated celebrities, whose news value is brief, but whose self-destruction may endure. They suffer a sorry end to what was often an outstanding and even sometimes socially useful career. It takes wise judgment to avoid the pitfall of risk-addiction; to be satisfied with the celebrity due to real accomplishment not needing the extra kick from risk-taking. But if achieving celebrity is the primary motivation, its pursuit is dangerous, for the risk-taking it often requires will at some point result in failure. Safer to be motivated by wanting to make a difference, by altruism and empathy, than by risk-taking and the excitement it generates.

Dr. Paul Ekman is a well-known psychologist and co-discoverer of micro expressions. He was named one of the 100 most influential people in the world by TIME magazine in 2009. He has worked with many government agencies, domestic and abroad. Dr. Ekman has compiled over 40 years of his research to create comprehensive training tools to read the hidden emotions of those around you. To learn more, please visit: www.paulekman.com.