ii) More on Power


Lord Acton, a British historian/politician (late 19th and early 20th centuries) made the observation that a person's sense of morality, fair play, humility, respect for others, etc lessens as his or her power increases.

"...I don't think you can enforce humility and with power......Power is a powerful drug, a powerful opiate. It can mislead you..."
Shah Rukh Khan (Bollywood star) as quoted by Michael Bleby 2019


"...Power is a sort of tumour that ends by killing the victim's sympathies..."

Henry Adams as quoted by Jerry Useem 2017

Studies over 2 decades by Dacher Keltner (University of California, Berkeley) had found under the influence of power people suffered from a condition akin to a traumatic brain injury, ie becoming more impulsive and less risk-aware. Also, they become less adept at seeing things from other people's point of view. They become less humble.

Further research has found that power impairs a specific neural process, ie mirroring, which is the cornerstone of empathy. This has been described as the power paradox, ie once we have power, we lose some capacity which was needed to gain it in the first place.

"...Mirroring is a subtler kind of mimicry which goes on entirely within their own heads, and without our awareness. When we watch someone perform an action, part of the brain we would use to do that same thing lights up in sympathetic response..."
Jerry Useem 2017

This is sometimes called a vicarious experience.

Powerful people stop simulating the experience of others which is called empathy deficit

Some experiments have shown that powerful people do worse at identifying what somebody in a picture is feeling or guessing how a colleague might interpret remark.

Furthermore, people tend to mimic expressions and body language of their superiors.

"...Laughing when others laugh or tensing when others tense does more than ingratiate. It helps trigger the same feelings those others are experiencing and provides a window into where they are coming from..."

Jerry Useem 2017

This can aggravate the problem with subordinates providing few reliable cues to the powerful about their behaviour. At the same time powerful people stop mimicking others.

In experiments trying to determine whether conscious effort by the powerful to change their responses was effective, the findings showed that it made no difference, ie if it didn't help.

"...Power......primes our brains 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..."

Jerry Useem 2017

"...Power lessens the need for a nuanced read of people, since it gives us command of resources we once had to cajole from others..."

 Susan Fiske as quoted by Jerry Useem 2017

The powerful are less able to identify individualised traits, they more heavily rely on stereo-typing. The powerful become full of their own self-importance.

An example is John Stumpf (Wells Fargo) who told Congress that cross selling of products is shorthand for deepening customer relationships!!!!!!

Another study found that chief executives who as children had lived through a natural disaster that produced significant fatalities were much more risk-seeking than CEOs who hadn't had this experience.

In 2008, Jonathan Davidson and Lord David Owen (a British neurologist turned politician who became UK's Foreign Secretary) researched the performance of British prime ministers and American presidents since 1900. Some showed a disorder called hubris syndrome (David Owen, 2008). This is a disorder associated with power based on significant success over a period of years with minimal constraints. Some clinical features of this include manifest contempt for others, loss of contact with reality and becoming isolated, restless and impulsive, displays of incompetency, a disregard for contrary advice, seek self-glorification in words and deeds, focus on enhancing self-image, a tendency to talk of themselves in the third person (royal we), excessive self-confidence and arrogance, exaggerated self-belief (above the law), etc. Usually the symptoms abate when the person no longer exercises power.

Hubris syndrome is less likely to develop in people who retain humble and personal modesty by keeping to their previous lifestyle and eschewing the trappings of power, remain open to criticism and consult carefully, have a healthy degree of cynicism, a well-developed sense of humour, a healthy respect for institutional constraints and restraints, etc

In summary, power is not a post or a position but a mental state. One way to handle this is to remember a time when you were powerless, ie this will help your brain communicate with reality or have somebody or something that is your reality check. Some examples, Winston Churchill had his wife Clementine as a reality check; Nelson Mandela used to use his personal assistants to evaluate his performance.


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