Irrational Animals: a neuroscience take on the news

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Obama and the drones: the neuroscience of power

Martha Gill's Irrational Animals column.

Obama, Photograph: Getty Images

As newspapers struggle to save money and staff time, I’d like to suggest “Powerful Man Does Off-Colour Thing” as a handily recyclable headline. A few weeks ago, Jeremy Hunt’s only vice seemed to be that he danced the zouk lambada with a real enthusiasm. How could this man have risked his job sending texts to News International? Barack Obama once had a gentle, thoughtful image – voted in as a man of intellectual passion and well-articulated self-doubt. Does he really spend his Tuesdays shuffling through a deck of macabre “baseball cards”, confidently picking out a weekly kill roster? And why do chief executives suddenly sleep with their secretaries?

These recurring “shock” headlines have a certain endearing innocence about them, like a toddler who always hides in the same cupboard during hide-and-seek and still expects us to be surprised.

We shouldn’t be. It does seem odd that a new desk placard and a few more emails to send every day can turn someone from Tim Canterbury into David Brent. But the trouble is that power is also a feeling, and feelings affect the way people think. When we take stock of someone’s perspective on the world and make them president of the United States, we forget that we are also going to make them feel like the president of the United States. And that’s a pretty perspective-skewing emotion.

According to neuroscientists, the main psychological effect of giving someone a load of power is that it makes them less empathetic. The further they climb, the smaller and fuzzier everyone looks below.

A recent experiment illustrates the point. Sukhvinder Obni at Wilfrid Laurier University in Ontario asked a group of participants to recall past experiences where they had felt powerful, and a second group to remember feeling powerless. Primed with these feelings, subjects watched a video of someone squeezing a stress ball, while the researchers tracked activity in the mirror region of the brain.

The mirror region is so called because neurons there can't seem to tell the difference between something you do and something someone else does. Drink some tea - it lights up. Watch someone else drink tea - the same cells light up. It's a centre for empathy.

The researchers found that those who felt powerful had far less activity in the mirror region as those who did not. Power seemed to affect their ability to get into someone else's shoes.

Judgement call

The researchers argued that this effect came from the brain-corrupting effects of power, which makes it harder to imagine the world from someone else’s perspective. If we’re in command we don’t care how stressed other people are. 

So power corrupts, eh? Yes, you bet it does. Absolutely.