When power goes to your head

I think we probably all know someone who has a little bit of power and it’s really gone to their head; it’s like they believe their own PR! Before I started working for a really nice, no let’s make that a fantastic boss (that would be me when I went out on my own), I used to think it was because the boss’s PA would rush around after him (invariably it was a him), fetch his tea, collect his dry cleaning, make sure he left for appointments on time and had all the papers he needed with him. These bosses got to believe they deserved all that red carpet treatment, when in fact, without that PA supporting them, they’d have been exposed for the very average, normal human beings they really were!

Power must be great, though, because so many people really hang onto it when they have it, well beyond their use-by-date. Or frantically try to get it back when they lose it. But I digress.

A Canadian neuroscientist at Wilfrid Laurier University in Ontario, Dr Sukhvinder Obhi, has done a study on the psychological impact of power. The bottom line is, surprise, surprise, power makes people aloof, unfriendly and distant and powerful people, therefore need to learn to take into account how other people might be feeling. Shucks, I bet most of us could have told him that!

But maybe we couldn’t have told him why–although it’s obvious when you think about it. It seems that to get to a position of power, you need to be able to ignore irrelevant information and concentrate on what is relevant to the job at hand. Well, that might make you a better manager, say, but it also means you’re likely to ignore people, at least those who aren’t’ directly helping you achieve the task at hand, and that makes you aloof, unfriendly, distant and so on. It isn’t personal–powerful people just don’t recognise the fact that other people are, well, people–unless they’re directly helping them achieve their goals.

And it seems that even a very small dose of power is enough to turn an otherwise nice person into an aloof, distant, unfriendly person–something they probably wouldn’t be were it not for the power.

This is where it really gets interesting. Obhi found that there is a very good reason for that: power fundamentally changes how your brain operates. Whoa!

Obhi and his colleagues put their research subjects in the mindset of feeling either powerless or powerful by writing about a time they either depended on others for help or about a time they were calling the shots. Then they all watched a short video of a hand squeezing a rubber ball a few times, sort of monotonously. Obhi and his team tracked the wired-up brains of the participants while they watched, looking at the part where our mirror neurons are–they’re the ones that make us smile back when someone smiles at us or feel tempted to be rude back to someone who is rude to us.

Watching a hand squeeze a ball, or seeing someone smile, or pick up a cup of coffee, or whatever, activates your mirror neurons just as if you were doing that action yourself. Apart from leading you to reciprocate, or do the same thing, you also get a strong clue as to what that person is thinking. And that’s what empathy is, in essence–being able to put yourself in someone else’s shoes. We need our mirror neurons to be in good working order, in order to be nice people.

Back to Obhi’s experiment and the video of the hand squeezing the ball. The mirror neurons of the people who were feeling powerless strongly activated and the mirror neurons of the people who felt powerful didn’t activate much at all. And that explains why powerful people have less empathy and seem distant and aloof. It’s because they are.

So the lesson here, current and future leaders of Australia and magnates of industry and commerce, and while we’re at it, let’s throw in a few politicians, too, the lesson here is this: when you’re in a position of power, take extra, extra care to be considerate to and cognisant of, the people around you. They’re ultimately holding you up.

Discussion questions

How do you plan to keep grounded when you get your five minutes of fame?