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ChangingMinds Blog! > Blog Archive > 29-Jan-17


Sunday 29-January-17

Self, short-term and stupidity: the unholy persuasive trinity

We live in strange times where these three factors seem to be in the ascendant. They also make for dangerous times as many in power seem hell-bent on narrow, self-serving actions that take little account of the wider impact.


A basic dimension of personality is the extent to which people focus on their own needs as opposed to those of other people. In practice, many of us swing along this scale, sometimes being generous and sometimes selfish. This pendulum is affected by how comfortable we are. When we feel the tension of fear or greed, we swing towards ourselves. When we feel safe and comfortable, we are more likely to be kinder, though the anchor of self can hinder even this.

As such, the 'self' may extend to family, close friends and ideals that support and legitimize unkind actions. For example a nationalist, patriotic position can be used to justify racist and xenophobic actions.

Selfishness becomes particularly dangerous when those in power are driven more by their own ends than social concerns. When they don't care who they trample on, when they consider deceit a useful tool, and when they bludgeon rather than finesse, then everyone else suffers.


When thinking about the future we easily discount the likely effect of our actions, assuming risks will not happen and trivializing arguments that do not support us. Thinking about the wider impact of our actions can also be something of an inconvenience when this highlights how our ideas are flawed, damaging or just plain wrong.

Being in power can make a person reactive as they grab at every opportunity without concern for the future. With power aplenty, it is easy to feel they can handle problems that may arise from their actions, for example by blaming others or ignoring complaints. Where the thought of social disapproval keeps many of us on the straight and narrow, the powerful treat others with disdain.


Education is not the best predictor of success, particularly not wealth and influence. Determination and a willingness to bend the rules are how many get there. Also, if you try to be too perfect, too kind or are too concerned about the approval of others, your career ceiling is likely to be limited.

While 'stupidity' may be an emotionally charged word, it can describe well the decisions and actions of the powerful. When they equate success with their own 'genius', when they punish disagreement, or when they are selfish and think short-term, then their decisions may seem wise at first yet turn out to be very foolish.

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