I’m reading an article on how Henry Paulson had talks with Goldman Sachs when he was designing the financial bailout. Of course he claims there was no favoritism or influence. Politicians also claim they’re not too influenced by lobbyists. And a few years ago, Cokie Roberts generated some heat when it turns out she was being paid speaking fees by some companies she was ostensibly investigating. And let us remember fondly Vice President Cheney, whose ties to Halliburton surely had nothing to do with the tens of billions of dollars of no-bid contracts they received while he was in office.

What all these stories have in common is that from the outside, there appears to be a conflict of interest. Yet those on the inside insist there is none. Fortunately, this is a very, very easy situation to analyze.

There is conflict of interest. Period.

There is forty years of social psychology research that shows when you benefit from someone’s actions, you are much more likely to view them in a positive light. You are also much more likely to reciprocate. In fact, you will be willing to reciprocate far out of proportion to the favor the person did for you initially.

“But I know about these social psychology phenomena, so I don’t let them affect me.”

That sounds so nice and reasonable. And if everything worked according to logic, it would be. But even as the reciprocity principle happens at a deeper brain level than logic, so it turns out that you can’t correct for these biases by simply deciding to. What you’ll do is continue to be as biased as before, only you’ll come up with new rationalizations and justifications for it.

I’m not feeling ambitious enough to dig out specific citations for the science I’m referring to, but the book Influence by Robert Cialdini pretty much covers them all, appropriately analyzed and footnoted.

So I say this to elected officials who are bailing out the companies they have personal ties to, to journalists who claim impartiality while accepting large fees, to scientists whose research is funded by pharmaceutal companies: you are not impartial. You can not be impartial as long as you’re accepting money or favors. The only way to be impartial is to dissociate yourself completely from the influences in question. Otherwise any claim of impartiality will be at best self-deception, and at worst, knowing hypocrisy.

Paulson, Obama, Roberts, Cheney: Influence happens…

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