Obama and the drones: the neuroscience of power

Martha Gill's Irrational Animals column.

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.

Obama, Photograph: Getty Images

Martha Gill writes the weekly Irrational Animals column. You can follow her on Twitter here: @Martha_Gill.

This article first appeared in the 11 June 2012 issue of the New Statesman, A-Z of Iran

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Who benefits, and who loses out, from David Cameron’s housing plan?

The prime minister’s plan to scrap the affordable rental homes requirement, explained.

What has Cameron actually announced about housing today?

In David Cameron’s closing speech to the Conservative Party conference in Manchester today, he announced plans to change the requirements to build affordable rented homes in new developments so developers can build "starter homes" instead of homes to be leased at affordable or social rents. 

The policy is geared toward ensuring that his party meets its campaign pledge of building 200,000 new homes by the close of this parliament, by taking the emphasis off renting (affordable housing requirements usually refer to rented, not owned houses) and onto owning. It should, claims Cameron, take us from “Generation Rent” to “Generation Buy".

What sort of houses will they build instead?

"Starter homes" are homes sold at 80 per cent of market rates to those under 40. These an be sold for a maximum of £450,000 in London, and £250,000 everywhere else. 

That sounds quite good!  

There is a chance that Cameron is right – that removing these obstacles will make developers move through the planning process more quickly, and will help boost the number or houses built. 

But (and this is a big but): most predictions so far are that this won’t happen, and if it does, it’ll only help a very specific demographic. As my colleague Stephen Bush has already pointed out, the announcement is good politics, but bad policy. It makes it look like Cameron is doing something about the housing crisis, while scoring points with big property developers along the way.

My colleague Jonn Elledge, meanwhile, notes that this system could actually slow down housebuilding, as the houses will take longer to sell than they would to let. Moreover, if housebuilding is more profitable in the long run, this will push up land – and therefore house – prices. 

Who'll benefit?

Tory voters and their children, in a nutshell. The starter homes will mostly be one or two bedrooms, and will be aimed at working couples.

Shelter calculated earlier this year that a couple would need a combined income of £76,957 in London and £50,266 in the rest of the UK to afford one of these homes, which makes it clear that they're aimed at well-off professionals. If you're in a stable relationship, earn £40,000 or £26,000 a year each and are looking to get on the housing ladder, you're in luck. 

Who won't it help? 

Everyone else. Under this policy, the Conservatives are effectively redefining “affordable”, just as they co-opted the phrase “living wage” earlier this year. By most peoples' definitions, a housing option only available to those with access to £80,000 in earnings a year is not affordable. The situation outside London is a little better. 

That’s not to say the affordable housing requirements were perfect before – these, too, were defined by some councils as 80 per cent of market rents, which in many places equates to anything but affordable. Yet removing the requirement for affordable rentals leaves nothing for those unable to afford to buy, leaving the squeezed lower-middle (and most young people) increasingly in the lurch.

Barbara Speed is a technology and digital culture writer at the New Statesman and a staff writer at CityMetric.