Power causes brain damage

Jerry Useem on why leaders lose mental capacities - most notably for reading other people - that were essential to their rise

30 July 2017 - 00:01 By Jerry Useem
Jacob Zuma sharing an awkward moment with Barack Obama.
Jacob Zuma sharing an awkward moment with Barack Obama.
Image: Gallo/Getty Images

If power were a prescription drug, it would come with a long list of known side-effects. It can intoxicate. It can corrupt. It can even make Henry Kissinger believe he's sexually magnetic. But can it cause brain damage?

When various US lawmakers lit into John Stumpf at a congressional hearing last year, each seemed to find a fresh way to flay the now-former CEO of Wells Fargo for failing to stop some 5,000 employees from setting up phony accounts for customers.

But it was Stumpf's performance that stood out. Here was a man who had risen to the top of the world's most valuable bank, yet he seemed utterly unable to read a room. He didn't appear chastened or remorseful. Nor did he seem defiant or smug or even insincere. He looked disoriented, like a jet-lagged space traveller just arrived from Planet Stumpf, where deference to him is a natural law and 5,000 a commendably small number.

What was going through Stumpf's head? New research suggests that the better question may be: what wasn't going through it?

The historian Henry Adams was being metaphorical, not medical, when he described power as "a sort of tumour that ends by killing the victim's sympathies".

Experiments showed that subjects under the influence of power acted as if they had suffered a traumatic brain injury

But that's not far from where Dacher Keltner, a psychology professor at the University of California, Berkeley, ended up after years of lab and field experiments.

Subjects under the influence of power, he found, 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, put the heads of the powerful and the not-so-powerful under a transcranial-magnetic-stimulation machine. He found that power 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.

Experiments have shown that powerful people do worse at identifying what someone in a picture is feeling

That loss in capacity has been demonstrated in various 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.

Other experiments have shown that powerful people do worse at identifying what someone in a picture is feeling.

Keltner says 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, leading to "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's what Obhi and his team were trying to activate when they had their subjects watch a video of someone 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 anaesthetised. 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 anaesthetic 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, they may have what in medicine is known as "functional" changes to the brain.

Power 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.


Even that is not necessarily bad for the prospects of the powerful, or those they lead. As Susan Fiske, a Princeton psychology professor, has argued, power lessens the need for a nuanced read of people, since it gives us command of resources we once had to cajole from others.

But of course the maintenance of that command relies on some level of organisational support. And the sheer number of examples of executive hubris that bristle from the headlines suggests that many leaders cross the line into counterproductive folly.

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 said, is a mental state. Recount a time you did not feel powerful, his experiments suggest, and your brain can commune with reality.


David Owen - a British neurologist who served as foreign secretary - says medicine should recognise "hubris syndrome" as a disorder.

"[It] is a disorder of the possession of power, particularly power which has been ... held for years and with minimal constraint on the leader."

Its clinical features include: manifest contempt for others, loss of contact with reality, reckless actions, and displays of incompetence.

I asked Owen if anything helps keep him tethered to reality, something other powerful figures might emulate. He shared a few strategies: thinking back on hubris-dispelling episodes from his past, watching documentaries about ordinary people.

But I surmised that the greatest check on Owen's hubris today might stem from his recent research endeavors. Businesses, he complained, had shown 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. - The Atlantic