Does Power Cause Brain Damage?

The Atlantic released an interesting article this year considering if the possession of power causes brain damage. There’s probably some truth to that, but I think the potential brain damage could be lessened or mitigated if the person(s) use the power mostly to make a positive difference in the world.

If concentrated power does regularly cause brain damage, it’s an additional reason why there should be a more equitable distribution of power. This research is still under development, however, and in my view, it should be studied with the democratic organizations other animals have too.

The historian Henry Adams was being metaphorical, not medical, when he described power as “a sort of tumor that ends by killing the victim’s sympathies.” But that’s not far from where Dacher Keltner, a psychology professor at UC Berkeley, ended up after years of lab and field experiments. Subjects under the influence of power, he found in studies spanning two decades, acted as if they had suffered a traumatic brain injury—becoming more impulsive, less risk-aware, and, crucially, less adept at seeing things from other people’s point of view.

Sukhvinder Obhi, a neuroscientist at McMaster University, in Ontario, recently described something similar. Unlike Keltner, who studies behaviors, Obhi studies brains. And when he put the heads of the powerful and the not-so-powerful under a transcranial-magnetic-stimulation machine, he found that power, in fact, impairs a specific neural process, “mirroring,” that may be a cornerstone of empathy.

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The sunniest possible spin, it seems, is that these changes are only sometimes harmful. Power, the research says, primes our brain to screen out peripheral information. In most situations, this provides a helpful efficiency boost. In social ones, it has the unfortunate side effect of making us more obtuse. Even that is not necessarily bad for the prospects of the powerful, or the groups they lead. As Susan Fiske, a Princeton psychology professor, has persuasively argued, power lessens the need for a nuanced read of people, since it gives us command of resources we once had to cajole from others. But of course, in a modern organization, the maintenance of that command relies on some level of organizational support.

[…]

It’s difficult to stop power’s tendency to affect your brain. What’s easier—from time to time, at least—is to stop feeling powerful.

Insofar as it affects the way we think, power, Keltner reminded me, is not a post or a position but a mental state. Recount a time you did not feel powerful, his experiments suggest, and your brain can commune with reality.

Recalling an early experience of powerlessness seems to work for some people—and experiences that were searing enough may provide a sort of permanent protection. An incredible study published in The Journal of Finance last February found that CEOs who as children had lived through a natural disaster that produced significant fatalities were much less risk-seeking than CEOs who hadn’t. (The one problem, says Raghavendra Rau, a co-author of the study and a Cambridge University professor, is that CEOs who had lived through disasters without significant fatalities were more risk-seeking.)

To avoid the adverse effects of power, control it without letting it control you. That seems to be advice of value, though it’s the principles used in accordance with the advice that will make the difference.