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Neuroscience Says That Powerful People See The World Differently

And not all of it is good.

Drake Baer
Jun 19, 2017 · 3 min read
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Image courtesy of Flickr.

The famous quote has it, “power corrupts.” More precisely — and scientifically — power blinds.

When people are made to feel powerful, they lose some of the mental functions that form empathy, Jerry Useem reports in new story for the Atlantic. It’s an impairment that helps explain why Henry Kissinger thinks he’s sexually magnetic and why Donald Trump thinks he can say or do anything to anyone.

In the general population, neuroscientists have found that people’s brains will mirror the activity they see other people doing. When you watch a video of someone squeezing a rubber ball, your brain will sparkle with activity as though you were doing it yourself. It’s a sympathetic response that researchers think is an ingredient for empathy. But when people are made to feel powerful, there’s way less of that mirroring — suggesting less empathy, a result also found with people who make more money.

In a follow-up study, researchers asked powerful participants to concentrate on the mirroring, and they couldn’t get themselves to be more empathetic on purpose.

These are results from the lab, not long-term longitudinal studies, so they’re far from the final word. But still, power as cognitive handicap is a theme that bright minds have been warning about for a couple centuries: British Prime Minister William Pitt observed that “unlimited power is apt to corrupt the minds of those who possess it” in 1770.

More recently, another Brit, the neurologist-politician David Owen has gone as far to propose “Hubris syndrome” as an “acquired personality disorder.” It’s characterized by seeing “the world as a place for self-glorification through the use of power”; losing “contact with reality”; resorting “to restlessness, recklessness and impulsive actions”; and displaying “incompetence with disregard for nuts and bolts of policy making.” (Remind you of someone?) Owen has started an organization for studying hubris, called the Daedalus Trust, named for the father of Icarus, the Greek figure who, in flying too close to the sun, had his waxen wings melt, sending him crashing toward the earth.

If there’s anything to help the powerful become less blind and stop them from turning themselves into tragic figures, Useem suggests “toe holders”: close confidants who keep the powerful from heading too far into orbit. It’s part of why, behind every great leader, there’s a greater partner or parent: Winston Churchill’s wife Clementine wrote him saying that she’d “noticed a deterioration in your manner,” reflected in the contempt he showed subordinates. PepsiCo CEO Indra Nooyi likes to tell the story of how, after being elected to the company’s board, she came home glowing with self-satisfaction, and her mother asked her to go out and get some milk. Mom’s advice: “Leave that damn crown in the garage.”

Here’s an idea: Put Nooyi’s mom in the Trump administration.

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