The Downside of Power

A recent article in The Atlantic Daily Newsletter was entitled ‘Power Causes Brain Damage.’

What? Brain damage? That can’t be true.

The article’s author, Justin Renteria, reported the following: a psychology professor at UC Berkeley named Dacher Keltner discovered after 20 years of lab and field experiments that power does indeed cause behavioral differences. Keltner concluded that subjects under the influence of power were more impulsive and less aware of risk. He further concluded that they were also less adept at seeing things from another’s point of view – in other words, lacking empathy. Keltner compared this group of behaviors to a person who had suffered a traumatic brain injury. We all know that absolute power corrupts absolutely, but brain damage?

Keltner coined this phenomenon the “power paradox,” meaning that once someone becomes powerful, they lose some of the capacities that were needed to initially gain that power. According to this same article, an Ontario neuroscientist described something similar. Sukhvinder Obhi used a transcranial-magnetic-stimulation machine to study the brains of both powerful and non-powerful people. What Obhi found is that power impairs “mirroring,” a specific neural process that has to do with empathy. In other experiments, powerful people were less able to identify the feelings of someone in a picture or guess how a colleague might interpret something they said.

When reading this article, I couldn’t help thinking about the character Bill Lumberg, played by actor Gary Cole in the movie, ‘Office Space.’ Lumberg, known for his insincere greeting, “What’s happening?” is a king-size jerk. His most common response to workplace issues was a drawn-out “Yeah – if you could do that, that would be great.” Of course, Cole’s portrayal was meant to be a caricature of a bad boss, but I’m sure many of us have had bosses who weren’t a whole lot different.

Throughout my career, I’ve had a few women supervisors. And, although I’m always happy to see women in power positions, I’ve often been disappointed by their lack of caring and compassion, common female traits. Before reading this article, I had attributed this to the possibility that they felt they had to suppress those aspects of themselves in order to be taken seriously. But, maybe they, too were trapped in the ‘power paradox.’

So, is there anything a powerful person can do to escape the paradox? Since experiments have shown that it’s difficult to stop the affect power has on the brain, another solution is just to stop feeling powerful. The article suggests that powerful people could benefit from having a “toe-holder,” someone who’s there to keep them grounded and remind them about their ordinary obligations. So if you have a leader in your life, hold those toes!


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