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Jun 28

POWER EFFECTS

What are the negative effects of power on people?  In other words, does power affect a person’s physical being?  Of course we can identify many ways power can destroy relationships, produce narcissistic behaviors, and lead to self-destructive choices.  But can power directly impact a person’s brain functioning?  Psychology professor Dacher Keltner from UC Berkeley studied the influence of power and found his subjects were more impulsive, less risk-aware, and had limited compassion.  While Keltner studies behaviors, Sukhvinder Obhi, a neuroscientist at McMasyter University in Ontario, studies brains and found that power impairs a specific neural process called mirroring which is tied to empathy.  Keltner describes this experience as “empathy deficit,” almost like a numbing effect on the psyche as a result of power.  An article describing this phenomenon, published in The Atlantic and written by Jerry Useem, suggests that power disables an individual from social and emotional awareness.

The studies mentioned above produce some fascinating conclusions.  As people gain power, their brain functioning changes and their emotional intelligence diminishes.  An interesting study would be to measure a person’s brain functioning shortly before they gain all of their power to determine if they are somehow “primed” for the above changes.  My experience would indicate that certain personality types are more likely to assume power positions and that may be a factor in their brain functioning.  We could argue the chicken or egg dilemma but the fact of the matter is that people in positions of power often lack empathy and compassion which can be measured by their brain functioning.

Who do you know personally or who have you read about in the news with this profile?  What implications does this have for a large company or our government?  Some powerful people lack remorse when found guilty of wrongdoing, defend their position vehemently, and lack compassion for the other’s plight.  In response, some companies have provided executives with “sensitivity training,” since many have lost sight of people’s problems, issues, and emotions.

What can be done to turn this phenomenon around?  For many powerful people, giving of their time, talents, and treasures helps ground them and possibly develops greater empathy for others less fortunate.  When we humble ourselves by engaging in activities that may seem beneath our pay grade we better appreciate what we have.  It also helps to focus on relationships rather than achievements since often those in power devalue people unless those people can elevate their status.  Focusing on faith and a belief that there is a power greater than ourselves can provide additional grounding.  Lastly, having an accountability person to call you out when you’re moving adrift and heeding their advice will neutralize some of the power effects.

7 comments

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  1. Ted

    I see this happen frequently at work, in the various companies that come in and out of my office building. Most often it is those competeting to get near the top of an organization. Or attempting alpha status in a social group. It seems especially apparent in those who are not naturals for those position who simply desire the status of power. For this later group, the dysfunction appears already present in their nature.

    1. DrTony

      Good point Ted. Thanks for your comments and perspective.

  2. Susan

    Thank you again Tony… such pertinent articles everytime you reach out to us! SK

    1. DrTony

      Thanks Susan for your support.

  3. Raymond Spagnuolo

    Thought-provoking. I have an unusual point of view and I understand if this needs to be removed from the comments. From a re-incarnation point of view, a spirit desires something and takes a birth towards that end. Also, the spirit molds the body that it will actually occupy so, the chicken and egg conundrum takes another turn. Not only is a person with a certain physical brain characteristic more likely to seek power, but also, did the the person’s pre-birth desire actually mold the brain in that way!

    1. DrTony

      An interesting perspective, but always worth posting your input. Thanks Ray.

      1. Raymond Spagnuolo

        Thank you. The give and take of different points of view makes life interesting, no?

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