The Effect of Power on the Brain

Jerry Useem, “Power Causes Brain Damage” The Atlantic, July/August 2017, p24-26

“Absolute power corrupts absolutely,” said 19th century British politician Lord Acton.  The corruption of power is often manifested as hubris among those who possess the power.  The degree to which power corrupts not only the bad but also the otherwise good, moral person differs among individuals.  You can find countless books and articles on the subject of power and hubris in business journals and military leadership books.  The hubris of powerful people has been attributed to many things, from cold heartedness or greed, to weakness of character, to personality defects or personal insecurity.  Wherever it comes from, it has led to numerous disasters throughout history (for example, Napoleon’s ill fated invasion of Russia).  Last week I found an article in the Atlantic that explores another source for disorders of the powerful – brain damage.

Jerry Useem’s article highlights research on what seems observable and obvious to many of us – that people in positions of power seem to lose their ability to relate to their subordinates, and in some cases lose touch with reality in general.  Useem points to what neurologist Lord David Owen and co-author Jonathan Davis call “Hubris syndrome,” a disorder of people in positions of power for extended periods of time, characterized by contempt for others, loss of contact with reality, restless or reckless action and displays of incompetence.  This is the first time I’ve seen these traits treated as a “disorder” with “clinical features” rather than a personality flaw or leadership defect.

Useem also mentions several studies that demonstrate impairment of certain neural processes, including “mirroring.”  Mirroring, as used here, is a subconscious form of mimicry in which watching someone do something causes the part of the brain we would use to do that same action to “light up in sympathetic response.”  Research shows that among those studied who were considered powerful, the mirroring response worked less well than those in the nonpowerful group.  Even when the powerful group was asked to make a conscious effort to increase the mirroring response, the results did not change.

Fortunately there are techniques for avoiding “hubris syndrome” and other disorders of the possession of power.  Extremely powerful people such as Franklin D. Roosevelt and Winston Churchill had confidants who kept them grounded and even humbled simply by treating them as if they had the same obligations as the rest of us.  Unfortunately, as Useem points out, there is not a lot of appetite in the business world (nor, I would add on the military or government side) for research on hubris.  I would recommend more of this research for use in leadership training.  Most of the toxic leaders I have come across are the last to realize or admit that they are responsible for the toxic atmosphere in their organizations.  In some cases it would be more effective to treat it as an unconscious response of the brain to the experience of sustained power instead of as a personality defect that most would deny having.

The research described in this article is also useful for ethnographic researchers who seek to understand the perspectives and insights of members of groups that are disempowered, silenced and victimized.  It helps explain in part why “good people do bad things.”  Indifference toward victims, loss of touch with reality, and acts of blatant incompetence can be result at least in part from “hubris syndrome,” especially when leaders do not make a conscious effort to remain grounded and in touch with their subordinates and clients.  Also, researchers themselves must be aware of how they come across to the people they are interviewing.  As Yanna pointed out in class, how one listens can be a source of either empowerment or annihilation to the person being interviewed.  The ability to see yourself as others see you is critical in ethnographic studies, and the researcher must adopt strategies to keep that ability from becoming “anesthetized.

7 Responses to The Effect of Power on the Brain

  • Elijajh says:

    I really enjoyed this post. It speaks about the abuse of power and understanding of leadership. As a prior soldier, we learn about leadership with the responsibility of our personnel. The key element of a good leadership comes from understanding your people and the effects you have on them as well. Therefore a good leader understands the power of their position. Self-awareness is a characteristic of a great leader. By self-awareness in leadership, I mean a person who evaluates and makes corrections to their leadership style through the eyes of their personnel.
    In my opinion, a leader or person in a leadership position should understand not only legal actions but also the ethical obligations for society. I am also including people working in the field of science and technology. Science should remain as a positive influence in society. People in the field of medicine should understand their power of not just medicine but the people they serve. Once a doctor loses the attachment to their patients, the doctor becomes a scientist addressing scientific problems and not their patient’s illness.

  • Elijajh says:

    I need to add the following:
    In relationship to the water crisis of DC and Flint, the actions of the state officials lack the ethical use of their power. The leaders of serving during the DC and Flint water crisis demonstrated the abuse of power over the residents in both cities.

    • yanna says:

      Yes… In addition, to this day, health professionals, experts in public health and environmental health, as well as all sorts of government officials make claims about lead in water that are scientifically inaccurate and that downplay the risks involved, leaving many people unaware of actions they could take to prevent exposures.

  • yanna says:

    Absolutely fascinating. Thanks for bringing this article to our attention (I just tweeted about it!). Reading your post, I couldn’t help but wonder about the social and cultural power of technoscience. Is it possible that training and acquisition of expertise in the technosciences places practitioners in positions of power at least vis-a-vis “the public” but also perhaps in some/many cases vis-a-vis students, less-senior faculty members, experts in the social sciences/humanities, members of marginalized groups, etc.? Is it possible that the social and cultural power of technoscience renders some/many practitioners vulnerable to “hubris syndrome” as well as the clinical impairments that this brings? If this is possible, might the culture of technoscience embed a self-defeating element that can, under certain circumstances, leave experts sub-optimally able to listen to and learn from knowledges, experiences, and observations different from their own?

    • engineersanonymous says:

      I wish I’d read this 10 minutes ago- I wound up inadvertently echoing many of Yanna’s points in my own blog post!

  • engineersanonymous says:

    I found this article interesting, but I also wonder if different sorts of authority respond differently. There are authorities who face constantly some form of nominal challenge to their authority- scientists undergoing peer review, politicians seeking re-election, etc. Does this sort of constant challenge impact the relationship to power?

  • The Skeptical Miller says:

    It is fascinating that the response to what I called in class “the Elvis syndrome” is a measurable change in the brain structure. If you never get corrected, your brain builds new pathways that exclude criticism or even the idea that you could be wrong. I guess there was once a positive evolutionary advantage to this if we are talking about a very effective hunting technique. But in modern society, this syndrome seems like a real Achilles heel. I know this is an old fashioned, trite and sexist laden quote, but my grandmother used to say that behind every great man is a great woman. She took care of the children and the house, but she was also a very strong matriarch and kept my grandfather’s ego in check. It seems the modern powerful have no checks as they trade in the ego check wife for a series of trophy wives. The fact that it is a biological change in the brain makes this syndrome even more sad, but explains a lot considering the current power elite in the White House. Me thinks that Michelle was much more of an ego check than Melania.

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