If power were a prescription drug, it would come with a long list of known side effects. It can intoxicate. It can corrupt.
But can it cause brain damage?
The historian Henry Adams was being metaphorical, not medical, when he described power as “a sort of tumor that ends by killing the victim’s sympathies.”
But that’s not far from where Dacher Keltner, a psychology professor at UC Berkeley, ended up after years of lab and field experiments.
Subjects under the influence of power, he found in studies spanning two decades, acted as if they had suffered a traumatic brain injury—becoming more impulsive, less risk-aware, and, crucially, less adept at seeing things from other people’s point of view.
Sukhvinder Obhi, a neuroscientist at McMaster University, in Ontario, recently described something similar.
when he put the heads of the powerful and the not-so-powerful under a transcranial-magnetic-stimulation machine, he found that power, in fact, impairs a specific neural process, “mirroring,” that may be a cornerstone of empathy.
Which gives a neurological basis to what Keltner has termed the “power paradox”: Once we have power, we lose some of the capacities we needed to gain it in the first place.
That loss in capacity has been demonstrated in various creative ways. A 2006 study asked participants to draw the letter E on their forehead for others to view—a task that requires seeing yourself from an observer’s vantage point.
Those feeling powerful were three times more likely to draw the E the right way to themselves—and backwards to everyone else
The fact that people tend to mimic the expressions and body language of their superiors can aggravate this problem: Subordinates provide few reliable cues to the powerful.
But more important, Keltner says, is the fact that the powerful stop mimicking others. Laughing when others laugh or tensing when others tense does more than ingratiate. It helps trigger the same feelings those others are experiencing and provides a window into where they are coming from.
Powerful people “stop simulating the experience of others,” Keltner says, which leads to what he calls an “empathy deficit.”
Mirroring is a subtler kind of mimicry that goes on entirely within our heads, and without our awareness.
When we watch someone perform an action, the part of the brain we would use to do that same thing lights up in sympathetic response. It might be best understood as vicarious experience.
It’s what Obhi and his team were trying to activate when they had their subjects watch a video of someone’s hand squeezing a rubber ball.
For nonpowerful participants, mirroring worked fine: The neural pathways they would use to squeeze the ball themselves fired strongly. But the powerful group’s? Less so.
Was the mirroring response broken? More like anesthetized.
None of the participants possessed permanent power. They were college students who had been “primed” to feel potent by recounting an experience in which they had been in charge.
The anesthetic would presumably wear off when the feeling did—their brains weren’t structurally damaged after an afternoon in the lab.
But if the effect had been long-lasting—say, by dint of having Wall Street analysts whispering their greatness quarter after quarter, board members offering them extra helpings of pay, and Forbes praising them for “doing well while doing good”—they may have what in medicine is known as “functional” changes to the brain.
I wondered whether the powerful might simply stop trying to put themselves in others’ shoes, without losing the ability to do so. As it happened, Obhi ran a subsequent study that may help answer that question. This time, subjects were told what mirroring was and asked to make a conscious effort to increase or decrease their response. “Our results,” he and his co-author, Katherine Naish, wrote, “showed no difference.” Effort didn’t help.
This is a depressing finding. Knowledge is supposed to be power. But what good is knowing that power deprives you of knowledge?
The sunniest possible spin, it seems, is that these changes are only sometimes harmful. Power, the research says, primes our brain to screen out peripheral information. In most situations, this provides a helpful efficiency boost. In social ones, it has the unfortunate side effect of making us more obtuse
the sheer number of examples of executive hubris that bristle from the headlines suggests that many leaders cross the line into counterproductive folly
Less able to make out people’s individuating traits, they rely more heavily on stereotype. And the less they’re able to see, other research suggests, the more they rely on a personal “vision” for navigation
It’s difficult to stop power’s tendency to affect your brain. What’s easier—from time to time, at least—is to stop feeling powerful.
Insofar as it affects the way we think, power, Keltner reminded me, is not a post or a position but a mental state. Recount a time you did not feel powerful, his experiments suggest, and your brain can commune with reality.
Recalling an early experience of powerlessness seems to work for some people—and experiences that were searing enough may provide a sort of permanent protection.
An incredible study published in The Journal of Finance last February found that CEOs who as children had lived through a natural disaster that produced significant fatalities were much less risk-seeking than CEOs who hadn’t. (The one problem, says Raghavendra Rau, a co-author of the study and a Cambridge University professor, is that CEOs who had lived through disasters without significant fatalities were more risk-seeking.)
“Hubris syndrome,” as he and a co-author, Jonathan Davidson, defined it in a 2009 article published in Brain, “is a disorder of the possession of power, particularly power which has been associated with overwhelming success, held for a period of years and with minimal constraint on the leader.”
Its 14 clinical features include:
- manifest contempt for others,
- loss of contact with reality,
- restless or reckless actions, and
- displays of incompetence.
In May, the Royal Society of Medicine co-hosted a conference of the Daedalus Trust—an organization that Owen founded for the study and prevention of hubris.
Businesses, he complained to me, had shown next to no appetite for research on hubris. Business schools were not much better.
The undercurrent of frustration in his voice attested to a certain powerlessness. Whatever the salutary effect on Owen, it suggests that a malady seen too commonly in boardrooms and executive suites is unlikely to soon find a cure.