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.