The Demagogue’s Achilles Heel — How We Can Fight Back for Control of Our Country

Cover image from a repirnt of George Orwell’s 1984

This year has seen an unprecedented shift in American politics. As Americans, many of us are outraged as demagogue after demagogue takes their place in various seats of power in our government. In fact, many of these individuals have a lust for power so strong that it loses, not only a sense of rationality, but also all logical cohesion. The phrase “absolute power corrupts absolutely” has perhaps rarely been embodied as much as it is in our current political climate. Many have exhaustingly attempted to understand the behavior of voters and other key players to understand how we’ve ended up in this situation, but few have explored the minds of the leaders themselves to understand a mechanism behind our current plight. I do not pretend to attempt to diagnose any mental conditions or neuroses, however, an understanding of the neural mechanisms behind power motivation can give key insights into how we’ve arrived here, and what we can do fight the runaway abuse of power plaguing our political system. I propose that many outrageous behaviors and choices made in the past several months, from xenophobia to misogyny, are all indicative of individuals elevated in social power, and that continuous exposure to challenge and stress reinforces these behaviors on a neuroendocrine level, creating a vicious cycle of power lust, and abuse.

From a psychological standpoint, much work has been done to explore how high power affects a person’s behavior. We evolved from a primate species where knowing and reinforcing social rank was critical to survival. Many dominance behaviors continue into our modern era. Keltner and colleagues (Keltner, Gruenfeld, & Anderson, 2003) described social power through the lens of behavioral activation, and their key hypotheses model any modern demagogue precisely. For example, individuals elevated in power demonstrate increased sensitivity to reward. Taking on bigger and bigger projects, even when lacking the resources to see them through is just one example that can illustrate a hyper-focus on achieving rewards at a pathological level.

Additionally individuals with elevated power show an increased exploitation of others, which we have seen countless times as of late in the exploitation of immigrant workers, the lower class, and the American people at large. Elevated power also leads to increased social cognition and reliance on prejudice. Attempting to ban Muslims from entering the country on the grounds of unfounded fear and xenophobia is a topical example. Finally, elevated power leads to an increased likelihood of socially inappropriate behavior. Rampant misogyny and escalations of petty social media arguments are examples of this final aspect of increased power and social dominance.

Recent research in the neuroendocrine realm has revealed a potential neural substrate for these behavioral shifts: testosterone. Elevated levels of testosterone, especially in the context of decreased cortisol, facilitates social dominance, especially the desire to maintain and expand power. Baseline levels of these hormones are often associated with status seeking, decreased empathy and fear, and elevated motivational drive (Eisenegger, Haushofer, & Fehr, 2011). Interestingly, testosterone seems to act in a positive feedback loop. Testosterone signaling in response to a social dominance win can lead to enhanced social dominance behavior, which may lead to more wins, creating a vortex of dominance and, in some cases, a pathological obsession with winning and success at all costs (Bernhardt, Dabbs, Fielden, & Lutter, 1998).

This raises an interesting dilemma: the more challenges a person faces and meets and the more stress they are under, the stronger the social dominance effects become. Neuroendocrinologist Robert Sopolsky, in a seminal study, demonstrated that baboons with high social dominance experienced spikes of testosterone in response to stress. These spikes were not seen in baboons low in social dominance (Sapolsky, 1986). More recently, this was extended to include challenge and anticipation of challenge (Stanton & Schultheiss, 2009). To be explicit: the greater the challenge or stressor facing a socially dominant demagogue, the more their body may be responding with increasing amounts of testosterone, reinforcing and strengthening negative aspects of increased power.

Let’s take, as an example, the recent xenophobia dominating our current political situation. Testosterone has been shown to uncouple the amygdala, an emotional and fear center of the brain, from the prefrontal cortex, a decision making area of the brain, biasing behavior towards innate emotional associations and potentially leading to increased prejudice (van Wingen, Mattern, Verkes, Buitelaar, & Fernández, 2010). While an individual’s baseline balance of power-related hormones may already bias them towards emotional processing and prejudice, in the face of stress or challenge, this effect may be grossly exaggerated. While I do not believe the ban on Muslims entering our country to be a decision of passion, the underlying prejudice and xenophobia in those individuals making this decision may be increasingly reinforced by an endocrine system tipped into the balance of prejudice and emotional decision-making.

They say absolute power corrupts absolutely; neuroendocrinology has now provided us with a mechanism. The question remains though: what can we do? How do you alter the social dominance status of an individual? How can we turn the tide of powerful people to allow them to reengage their logical mind, and disengage the emotional fear-mongering taking hold of their behavior? In another seminal study on switching power dynamics, Ely and Henry showed that by taking dominant mice out of their home cage and instead putting them in a foreign cage where another mouse was dominant, they could be fooled, on a biochemical level, into becoming submissive mice (Ely & Henry, 1978). This is our job as the American people.

Our leaders are not in charge of us. They have been dropped into our cage, and it is our job as citizens to make sure they know that. We are a government of the people, for the people, and by the people. The people are in charge, not a series of leaders drunk on power. Call your congressman. Attend a protest. Do everything that is in your power to show that we are the dominant players in this country and that we do not stand for this behavior. By shifting the power dynamics of our nation away from the demagogues in office, we have the ability to transform the neurological power dynamics of our leaders. Remember the power that you have. This is the time to take back our nation.

Sources:

Bernhardt, P. C., Dabbs, J. M., Fielden, J. A., & Lutter, C. D. (1998). Testosterone changes during vicarious experiences of winning and losing among fans at sporting events. Physiology & Behavior, 65(1), 59–62.

Eisenegger, C., Haushofer, J., & Fehr, E. (2011). The role of testosterone in social interaction. Trends in Cognitive Sciences, 15(6), 263–271. http://doi.org/10.1016/j.tics.2011.04.008

Ely, D. L., & Henry, J. P. (1978). Neuroendocrine response patterns in dominant and subordinate mice. Hormones and Behavior, 10(2), 156–169. http://doi.org/10.1016/0018-506X(78)90005-3

Keltner, D., Gruenfeld, D. H., & Anderson, C. (2003). Power, approach, and inhibition. Psychological Review, 110(2), 265–284. http://doi.org/10.1037/0033-295X.110.2.265

Sapolsky, R. M. (1986). Stress-Induced Elevation of Testosterone Concentrations in High Ranking Baboons: Role of Catecholamines*. Endocrinology, 118(4), 1630–1635. http://doi.org/10.1210/endo-118-4-1630

Stanton, S. J., & Schultheiss, O. C. (2009). The hormonal correlates of implicit power motivation. Journal of Research in Personality, 43(5), 942–949. http://doi.org/10.1016/j.jrp.2009.04.001

van Wingen, G., Mattern, C., Verkes, R. J., Buitelaar, J., & Fernández, G. (2010). Testosterone reduces amygdala-orbitofrontal cortex coupling. Psychoneuroendocrinology, 35(1), 105–113. http://doi.org/10.1016/j.psyneuen.2009.09.007

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