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Bruno Dubuc, Patrick Robert, Denis Paquet, and Al Daigen

Monday, 8 July 2019
Power Weakens Cognitive Abilities To Bond with Other People

This week I’d like to tell you about an article that appeared in The Atlantic in August 2017 and that I’d never gotten around to telling you about before. It was called “Power Causes Brain Damage”, with the subtitle “How leaders lose mental capacities—most notably for reading other people—that were essential to their rise”. The article cites UC Berkeley psychologist Dacher Keltner, whose past work has included studies showing that rich people are more inconsiderate in various situations, such as taking turns with their vehicles at 4-way stops. Apparently, personal wealth provides a feeling of unlimited power that causes rich people to become detached from reality. This finding raises serious questions about the state of mind of the many wealthy people who are elected to represent the people as a whole.

As reported in The Atlantic, after 20 years of experiments both in the laboratory and in the field, Keltner has concluded that people who are in positions of power for a long time become more impulsive, take more risks and, most disturbingly, become more and more incapable of seeing things from other people’s point of view.

This is what Keltner calls the “power paradox”: once someone attains power, they gradually lose the mental capacity for empathy that enabled them to rise through the ranks to begin with. One good piece of evidence that Keltner cites in this regard is that powerful people lose the natural human ability to ”mirror”—to laugh when other people laugh, to feel tense when people around them feel tense, and so on—an ability that favours the sharing of emotions. As a result, according to Keltner, powerful people develop an empathy deficit.

Psychologist Susan Fiske explains this loss of the need for a nuanced reading of other people’s state of mind by the fact that once people reach positions of power (for example, when they are elected to a four-year term of office), they simply have less need of other people to be in the driver’s seat. In making decisions, they start to rely more on their stereotypes of other people and their personal view of the world. As is now all too apparent, when it comes to complex issues such as the climate crisis and the migration crisis that it is aggravating, such an approach unfortunately does not always produce decisions that are in the general interest.

For Keltner, if there is any hope, it may be that power is not so much a permanent social position as a state of mind that accompanies it. If you find that your own sense of empathy is failing, simply reminding yourself of some time in your life when you felt powerless or vulnerable will quickly reconfigure your brain networks so that you feel more dependent on other people and hence pay more attention to them.

In 2008, Lord David Owen, a British neurologist turned parliamentarian, published a book entitled In Sickness and In Power, an inquiry into the various maladies that had affected the performance of British prime ministers and American presidents since 1900. When interviewed for the article in the The Atlantic, Owen expressed his frustration that business schools and businesses in general were so unreceptive to his warnings about the perverse psychological effects of power, or to his suggested strategies for putting a check on them, which come down to forcing yourself to engage in activities that let you stay in touch with ordinary people.

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