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

Photo: Getty Images
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How can Britain become a nation of homeowners?

David Cameron must unlock the spirit of his postwar predecessors to get the housing market back on track. 

In the 1955 election, Anthony Eden described turning Britain into a “property-owning democracy” as his – and by extension, the Conservative Party’s – overarching mission.

60 years later, what’s changed? Then, as now, an Old Etonian sits in Downing Street. Then, as now, Labour are badly riven between left and right, with their last stay in government widely believed – by their activists at least – to have been a disappointment. Then as now, few commentators seriously believe the Tories will be out of power any time soon.

But as for a property-owning democracy? That’s going less well.

When Eden won in 1955, around a third of people owned their own homes. By the time the Conservative government gave way to Harold Wilson in 1964, 42 per cent of households were owner-occupiers.

That kicked off a long period – from the mid-50s right until the fall of the Berlin Wall – in which home ownership increased, before staying roughly flat at 70 per cent of the population from 1991 to 2001.

But over the course of the next decade, for the first time in over a hundred years, the proportion of owner-occupiers went to into reverse. Just 64 percent of households were owner-occupier in 2011. No-one seriously believes that number will have gone anywhere other than down by the time of the next census in 2021. Most troublingly, in London – which, for the most part, gives us a fairly accurate idea of what the demographics of Britain as a whole will be in 30 years’ time – more than half of households are now renters.

What’s gone wrong?

In short, property prices have shot out of reach of increasing numbers of people. The British housing market increasingly gets a failing grade at “Social Contract 101”: could someone, without a backstop of parental or family capital, entering the workforce today, working full-time, seriously hope to retire in 50 years in their own home with their mortgage paid off?

It’s useful to compare and contrast the policy levers of those two Old Etonians, Eden and Cameron. Cameron, so far, has favoured demand-side solutions: Help to Buy and the new Help to Buy ISA.

To take the second, newer of those two policy innovations first: the Help to Buy ISA. Does it work?

Well, if you are a pre-existing saver – you can’t use the Help to Buy ISA for another tax year. And you have to stop putting money into any existing ISAs. So anyone putting a little aside at the moment – not going to feel the benefit of a Help to Buy ISA.

And anyone solely reliant on a Help to Buy ISA – the most you can benefit from, if you are single, it is an extra three grand from the government. This is not going to shift any houses any time soon.

What it is is a bung for the only working-age demographic to have done well out of the Coalition: dual-earner couples with no children earning above average income.

What about Help to Buy itself? At the margins, Help to Buy is helping some people achieve completions – while driving up the big disincentive to home ownership in the shape of prices – and creating sub-prime style risks for the taxpayer in future.

Eden, in contrast, preferred supply-side policies: his government, like every peacetime government from Baldwin until Thatcher’s it was a housebuilding government.

Why are house prices so high? Because there aren’t enough of them. The sector is over-regulated, underprovided, there isn’t enough housing either for social lets or for buyers. And until today’s Conservatives rediscover the spirit of Eden, that is unlikely to change.

I was at a Conservative party fringe (I was on the far left, both in terms of seating and politics).This is what I said, minus the ums, the ahs, and the moment my screensaver kicked in.

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog.