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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Mister Lizard is not at home to bailiffs – he is eating salmon pâté by the river

Why is it that when people answer the question “What’s the worst thing anyone’s ever said to you?” in the Guardian questionnaire they never say, “You’ve been served”?

Summer’s nearly over. I look at the angle of the sunlight as it strikes the back terrace of the Hovel. I have been here long enough to use the terrace as a gnomon marking the passage of the year. I need, like the protagonists of Withnail and I, to go to the countryside to rejuvenate.

Last week when the Perseids were meant to be in full flow I asked frantically on a social medium for people to chum me along on a midnight walk on Hampstead Heath. In the end my new friends A— and her husband, C—, together with his new friend (whose initial I have forgotten, but he is Australian, if that helps), stepped up to the plate and after a couple at the Flask we went on a wide-ranging tour, which was a bust as far as seeing meteors – or my favourite tree – went, but was still hugely enjoyable. At about 2 am they packed me into an Uber and I went home happy, but I still felt as if I could do with more countryside.

The next few days made me even more anxious to get out of London. There are ominous signs that some serious roadworks are going to be taking place outside my bedroom window any day now. A bailiff came and rang the doorbell and I didn’t have the heart, or the nerve, to say that Nicholas Lezard was not at home at the moment and, is, in fact, on a walking tour of Patagonia now I come to think of it, due back some time next year. I just took the piece of paper into my hands as if it were a chicken come home to roost.

The previous day, presumably the same bailiff had come round and asked if Mr Lizard was in, and my housemate gallantly – and quite truthfully – said “no”. (Why is it that when people answer the question “What’s the worst thing anyone’s ever said to you?” in the Guardian questionnaire they never say, “You’ve been served”? Maybe it’s because they haven’t ever been.) In addition, as I said last week, the cleaning lady is on holiday and the Hovel is starting to look distinctly seedy.

So, then I get a call from a person who once featured quite prominently in this column, some time ago. This person is bored and wants me to go to his or her town and alleviate his or her boredom. This person and I parted company in circumstances that were far from ideal some time ago, and only recently have diplomatic relations been resumed.

It is too late, I say, for me to get on the train now; but when I have reviewed the book I am meant to be reviewing, I will hop on the train tomorrow around noon. And so I do, despite some monkey business from the departures board at King’s Cross, which tells passengers the 12:44 has been cancelled, then hasn’t been, then has, then hasn’t after all, while the 12:14 has slipped away like a thief in the night without telling anyone it was doing so.

I wonder if my return to the town of ——— is wise. As a dog returneth to its vomit, so doth a fool return to his folly. And the burnt hand fears the fire. Look, I say to myself, all we’re doing is going to have a picnic by the river. As we buy our supplies, the stallholder at the market asks if I am my companion’s husband. “No, he’s my picnic buddy,” he or she replies. “Never heard it called that before,” says the stallholder.

And the day passes perfectly pleasantly. We have two bottles of wine, cheese and smoked salmon pâté with crusty bread. People in punts drift past us, with varying degrees of competence. I remember it is A-level results day and call the eldest boy to ask how he’s done. He’s done well enough, it turns out, to get a place at university, though he feels obliged to point out that his results came in exactly a year ago. This is the kind of thing that happens when the number of children you have exceeds your mental bandwidth.

Later on, a porter from the college behind which we are picnicking asks me if I am a member, or an alumni. “Alumnus,” I correct him gently, hoping that this should establish my credentials. He asks for my name, and he radios the porters’ lodge to check my veracity. For some reason it takes him several goes to get my name right.

One of these goes is “Lizard”. We offer him some cheese, but he refuses, on the grounds that he has just had a banana and a cup of tea. I could live in a guest room here, I reflect, at not much higher rent than one pays in London. And the beauty of it is that the police, and presumably bailiffs, have to ask permission to go through the gates. 

Nicholas Lezard is a literary critic for the Guardian and also writes for the Independent. He writes the Down and Out in London column for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 25 August 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Cameron: the legacy of a loser