Power changes the way the brain operates

April 10, 2014

Companies are human networks that suffer when transparency and teamwork are supplanted by hidden agendas and diverted resources.

So says the March issue of Entrepreneur, which urges us to “just follow the bottlenecks and the bickering” to the root of many start-up difficulties:  empire builders.

Empire building appeals to our primitive limbic system, the emotional hub of our ancient brains, where we “initiate impulsive actions without conscious direction.

Power corrupts, and we know exactly what it corrupts:  empathy…  researcher Ana Guinote (University of Kent) found that powerful people tend to ignore peripheral data and don’t process information about the less powerful folks around them.

There’s evidence that power actually changes the way the brain sees others.  A 2013 study by researchers at the University of Toronto and Wilfrid Laurier University in Waterloo, Canada, tracked how the brain’s motor resonance system, which mimics the actions of others through what are known as mirror neurons and helps us relate, responded in high-power and low-power individuals.  The high-power individuals had less motor simulation, “reduced interpersonal sensitivity” and “decreased processing of social input.”  As a result, the powerful have decreased recognition of others’ concerns, allowing them to throw their weight around without qualm.

That gives empire builders the control they need to reduce the fears – insecurity, imperfection, loss of status – that fuel their pursuit of external validation.

However, the bumps [from the neurotransmitter dopamine] to the striatum and ego fade, since they’re based on the gaze of others, and when they do, the fears returns.

This new research confirms the empirical evidence we cited a little over four years ago (hat tip to Professor Michael Roberto):  it’s not power in and of itself that corrupts, but the leader’s sense of entitlement to that power.  Those with more humility – for lack of a better term – about how high they’ve climbed seem to be harder judges of their own behavior than those who instead believe It’s Good To Be The King.  Professor Roberto:

The Economist reports on some new research by psychologists Joris Lammers and Adam Galinsky.  In an experiment they conducted, they examined people in four different states:  1) high power, believed to be achieved legitimately, 2) low power, believed to be legitimate, 3) high power, believed to be achieved illegitimately, 4) low power believed to be illegitimate.

These scholars found that high power individuals who believed that, “they were entitled to their power readily engaged in acts of moral hypocrisy.” On the other hand, low power individuals did not engage in moral hypocrisy.  In fact, they tended to be harder on themselves than on others, when judging immoral behavior (such as stealing an abandoned bicycle). Lammers and Galinsky coined the term “hypercrisy” to describe that behavior.  Now, here is the most interesting part: the high power individuals who believed that they had been ascribed that power, but were not really entitled to it, actually behaved just as the low power individuals did. What’s the conclusion?  It appears that the feeling of entitlement among powerful individuals actually becomes the fundamental driver of misbehavior and immoral behavior.  Of course, we all knew this intuitively, but the stark findings here provide some persuasive empirical evidence, while also showing us the interesting “harsher on themselves than others” effect for low power individuals.

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