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.

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