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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OK, let's do this: who REALLY won Legs-It? An exclusive investigation

Look, some of you just aren't treating this question with the seriousness it deserves. 

This morning, the Daily Mail front page dared to look past the minutiae of Brexit - can my EU partner still live here? Why is my holiday so expensive? Should we be worried that David Davis looks like a man who's ended up a minister because he lost a bet? - to ask the really big question. 

Yes, indeed. Who is Top of the Tibia? Who shines in the shin department? Which of these impressive, powerful women has lower limbs which best conform to our arbitrary beauty standards? 

In the accompanying article, Sarah Vine (herself the owner of not one, but TWO lower limbs) wrote that the women put on a show of unity with "two sets of hands clasped calmly on the arms of their respective chairs", disdaining the usual diplomatic practice of accompanying discussions about Article 50 with a solemn, silent re-enactment of the Macarena.

Vine adds: "But what stands out here are the legs – and the vast expanse on show. There is no doubt that both women consider their pins to be the finest weapon in their physical arsenal. Consequently, both have been unsheathed." That's right, people: Theresa May has been unafraid to wear a skirt, rather than a pair of trousers with one leg rolled up like LL Cool J. A departure for Mrs May, to be sure, but these are uncertain times and showing off just one calf might see the stock markets plunge.

The prime minister has come to the bold decision that her legs are the "finest weapons in her physical armoury", when others might argue it's the sharp, retractable venom-filled spurs on her fore-limbs. (Oh wait, my mistake. That's the duck-billed platypus.)

As ever, the bien-pensant left is squawking about sexism and avoiding the real issue: who really won Legs-it? Well, there will be no handwringing over how this is a belittling way to treat two female politicians here, thank you very much. We shall not dwell on the fact that wearing a skirt while doing politics is not really remarkable enough to merit a front page, oh no. Instead, we shall bravely attempt to answer that Very Important Question. 

Who really won Legs-it? 

1. David Cameron

We might not know who won Legs-It, but let's be honest - we all know who lost. David Cameron here has clearly concluded that, much like Andrew Cooper's pre-referendum polling results, his legs are best hidden away while everyone politely pretends they don't exist. 

Legs-It Rating: 2/10

2. Michael Gove

Fun fact: Michael Gove's upper thighs are equipped with sharp, retractable claws, which aid him in knifing political rivals in the back.

Legs-It Rating: 8/10

3. David Davis

Mr Davis's unusually wide stance here suggests that one leg doesn't know what the other is doing. His expression says: this walking business is more difficult than anyone let on, but I mustn't let it show. Bad legs are better than no legs.  

Legs-It Rating: 6/10

4. Boris Johnson

Real talk: these legs don't really support Boris Johnson, they're just pretending they do to advance their career. 

Legs-It Rating: 6/10

5. George Osborne

Take in these long, cool pins. These are just two out of George Osborne's six legs. 

Legs-It Rating: 9/10

6. Liam Fox

In the past, Liam Fox has faced criticism for the way his left leg follows his right leg around on taxpayer-funded foreign trips. But those days are behind him now.

Legs-It Rating: 10/10

7. Nigel Farage

So great are the demands on the former Ukip leader's time these days, that his crotch now has a thriving media career of its own, independent from his trunk and calves. Catch it on Question Time from Huddersfield next month. 

Legs-It Rating: 7/10

Conclusion

After fearlessly looking at nine billion photos of legs in navy trousers, we can emphatically conclude that THEY ARE ALL BASICALLY THE SAME LEG. Life is great as a male politician, isn't it?

I'm a mole, innit.