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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As the strangers approach the bed, I wonder if this could be a moment of great gentleness

I don’t know what to do. In my old T-shirt and M&S pants, I don’t know what to do.

It’s 1.13am on an autumn morning some time towards the end of the 20th century and I’m awake in a vast hotel bed in a small town in the east of England. The mysterious east, with its horizons that seem to stretch further than they should be allowed to stretch by law. I can’t sleep. My asthma is bad and I’m wheezing. The clock I bought for £3 many years earlier ticks my life away with its long, slow music. The street light outside makes the room glow and shimmer.

I can hear footsteps coming down the corridor – some returning drunks, I guess, wrecked on the reef of a night on the town. I gaze at the ceiling, waiting for the footsteps to pass.

They don’t pass. They stop outside my door. I can hear whispering and suppressed laughter. My clock ticks. I hear a key card being presented, then withdrawn. The door opens slowly, creaking like a door on a Radio 4 play might. The whispering susurrates like leaves on a tree.

It’s an odd intrusion, this, as though somebody is clambering into your shirt, taking their time. A hotel room is your space, your personal kingdom. I’ve thrown my socks on the floor and my toothbrush is almost bald in the bathroom even though there’s a new one in my bag because I thought I would be alone in my intimacy.

Two figures enter. A man and a woman make their way towards the bed. In the half-dark, I can recognise the man as the one who checked me in earlier. He says, “It’s all right, there’s nobody in here,” and the woman laughs like he has just told her a joke.

This is a moment. I feel like I’m in a film. It’s not like being burgled because this isn’t my house and I’m sure they don’t mean me any harm. In fact, they mean each other the opposite.

Surely they can hear my clock dripping seconds? Surely they can hear me wheezing?

They approach, closer and closer, towards the bed. The room isn’t huge but it seems to be taking them ages to cross it. I don’t know what to do. In my old T-shirt and M&S pants, I don’t know what to do. I should speak. I should say with authority, “Hey! What do you think you’re doing?” But I don’t.

I could just lie here, as still as a book, and let them get in. It could be a moment of great gentleness, a moment between strangers. I would be like a chubby, wheezing Yorkshire pillow between them. I could be a metaphor for something timeless and unspoken.

They get closer. The woman reaches her hand across the bed and she touches the man’s hand in a gesture of tenderness so fragile that it almost makes me sob.

I sit up and shout, “Bugger off!” and they turn and run, almost knocking my clock from the bedside table. The door crashes shut shakily and the room seems to reverberate.

This article first appeared in the 12 January 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Putin's revenge