Wednesday, July 5, 2017

Power Really Does Go to Your Head - Literally

It’s commonly said about people who have reached the top of their field or otherwise wield a great deal of control that they have let power go to their heads.  While this is usually meant figuratively, a new study conducted at Berkeley suggests the saying may be more realistic than otherwise thought.

In depth research conducted in the lab and then generalized to real life settings has shown that several those who hold powerful positions are more impulsive, less aware of risk and less able to see another person’s perspective.  These characteristics are characteristic of those who have experienced brain damage caused by traumatic brain injury.

Power has been found to significantly influence empathy.  In particular, having a high level of social power appears to make people less emotionally responsive to the suffering of others.  They also don’t find the emotional reactions of others who are in pain to be important or meaningful.  Those who hold a great degree of power experience less distress and compassion and more emotion regulation when faced with someone who discloses that they are suffering. 

One explanation that has been given for these findings is that when people attain power they often lose the awareness of what got them there.  A big part of that is appreciation for others efforts in their climb and seeing the world through another’s eyes is related to that.  Often people in power believe that acknowledging that they had help getting to where they are will weaken their power base.  Similarly, those who were given a hand in obtaining power are frequently the least likely to help others on their attempt to rise to the top. 

Neuropsychologists have determined that powerful people fail to mimic others in social interactions.  This is important because this is how our conversations work.  When someone we are talking to laughs we laugh too.  Likewise, when someone expresses sadness we show similar emotions.  The failure to do so leaves the other person feeling misunderstood and unimportant to the person, to whom they are speaking. 

Studies using transcranial magnetic stimulation which measures which parts of the brain are firing found that the neural pathways that cause us to mirror someone else fired strongly in those who aren’t powerful but not in powerful individuals.  Powerful people were also less likely to put effort into increasing their emotional responses to others even when instructed to do so compared to low power individuals.  

It may be the case that those who first attain power, believe that showing a great deal of compassion for others will be viewed as weak so they purposely try to inhibit any empathy they might feel.  In the same vein, powerful people may believe that seeing from someone else’s point of view or being influenced by another’s perspective may be interpreted as If others have the power.  Then over time, these intentional efforts may lead to damage to structures and functions of the brain involved in relating to other people and forming meaningful connections.

 So those whose power has gone to their heads may have suffered damage that cannot be corrected.  However, it may also be the case that these individuals wouldn’t want to change it even if they could.  It can be argued that for those who have to make life or death decisions, low empathy is beneficial.  Yet, this research makes you wonder, at what cost?

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