Golfgate: why some people in power believe they are above the law

Golfgate: why some people in power believe they are above the law

24 August 2020

Article by our Director of Services that was published on rte.ie

Opinion: when we view power as dominance, it is often just a hop, skip and jump away from developing an attitude of entitlement

Last Thursday, the Irish Examiner ran a story which reported that more than 80 people attended an Oireachtas Golf Society dinner at a hotel in Clifden, Co Galway. The controversy over this outing has dominated the airwaves and media since.

So why did a summer golfing get-together illicit so much public outcry? Quite simply, it appears to have contravened Ireland's public health Covid-19 restrictions at a time when the people of Ireland are battling a rise in new cases. The dinner occurred a day after the government re-introduced new guidelines aimed at combatting the spread of Covid-19. It came when people in three counties were awaiting details on whether they were staying in or coming out of local lockdowns. The story broke at a time when anxiety about our vulnerable loved ones becoming ill is a constant fear that keeps us awake at night.

All of the above has resulted in public frustration but, more importantly, the people of Ireland have become disillusioned and disheartened. This dismay is further compounded by the public profile of the attendees, including a government minister Dara Calleary (who resigned the morning after the story broke), TDs, senators, EU Commissioner Phil Hogan, former MEP Brian Hayes, Supreme Court judge and former attorney-general Seamus Woulfethe Moroccan ambassador and recently retired RTÉ broadcaster Sean O'Rourke.

So why did these senior public representatives, whose role entitles them to hold significant power, feel that the rules that apply to others did not apply to them? Perhaps the answer lies in social psychology. For years, social psychologists have determined that power shapes our social behaviour. For example, studies show that many people who perceive themselves to have powerful roles tend to smile less, speak louder, be more impatient with others and interrupt others more while continuously trying to draw attention to themselves.

This behaviour is indicative of the features of dominance. When we begin to view power as dominance, it is often just a hop, skip and jump away from developing an attitude of entitlement - and we all know how supercilious someone can become once this mindset is instilled. According to research, 'entitled people' tend to cut in line, insist on special treatment and are more likely to create conflict, break the rules, behave dishonestly, and act selfishly.

Being a megalomaniac or, if you like, drunk on power is a fitting metaphor to explain the likely overbearing behaviour of the person with a high sense of entitlement. From the office bully putting down colleagues to the politician believing he or she is above the law, these individuals exhibit some of the least appealing aspects of human nature. 

How does this inappropriate use of power and this sense of entitlement affect the general public? One major newsflash that won't come as a surprise to any of us is that people often experience difficulty dealing with people with a strong sense of entitlement. Indeed, did you know that intermingling with highly entitled people can lower your well-being? Regrettably, many politicians exhibit what psychological research depicts as dominating and self-serving behaviours. The general public have a responsibility to be clear on our perception of what constitutes genuine power.

While controversy and public outcry has led to a Garda investigation into the Oireachtas golf society dinner in Clifden and has had serious consequences for some of those who attended, it is true to say that others involved are firmly holding to their line of defence. There are numerous examples of powerful people denying responsibility for their conduct in which they played and acknowledge playing a role.

The social psychology concept of cognitive dissonance can explain this conundrum. A politician may view himself or herself as a powerful and clever human being that is an exemplary role models for all of society. But when a situation involving them occurs in the absence of adequate justification, such as #Golfgate, and which is clearly at odds with the person’s opinion of themselves, or the opinion that they want to portray to others, the person will experience dissonance.

Not everyone with power morphs from Dr. Jekyll to Mr. Hyde and we must accept that people in power can indeed make human mistakes

Dissonance gives rise to uncomfortable feelings of guilt, regret and embarrassment. In order to justify this behaviour and to reduce these awkward feelings, the person has two choices. They can either hold up their hands and admit that they have made a grave mistake and accept the consequences. The alternative is to minimise their role and responsibility in the proceedings by rushing to convince themselves and others that their line of defence is really the truth.

The interplay between power, entitlement, attitude and dissonance will continue to be repeated throughout history. Of course, not everyone with power morphs from Dr. Jekyll to Mr. Hyde and we must accept that people in power can indeed make human mistakes. While people continue to hold high levels of power, there will always be scandals that will cause public outcry. The antidote is quite simply humility. For those whose emotional intelligence has yet to mature to understand fully this concept, do not fear, as many leadership experts have put forward theories that the detrimental traits of megalomania can be mitigated through social responsibility training. One can but hope!

The views expressed here are those of the author and do not represent or reflect the views of RTÉ

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