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Thread: Physiology: Power Causes Brain Damage

  1. #1
    Pie aren't squared, pie are round! Introversion's Avatar
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    Physiology: Power Causes Brain Damage

    Over time, leaders lose mental capacities—most notably for reading other people—that were essential to their rise.

    Quote Originally Posted by The Atlantic
    If power were a prescription drug, it would come with a long list of known side effects. It can intoxicate. It can corrupt. It can even make Henry Kissinger believe that he’s sexually magnetic. But can it cause brain damage?

    When various lawmakers lit into John Stumpf at a congressional hearing last fall, each seemed to find a fresh way to flay the now-former CEO of Wells Fargo for failing to stop some 5,000 employees from setting up phony accounts for customers. But it was Stumpf’s performance that stood out. Here was a man who had risen to the top of the world’s most valuable bank, yet he seemed utterly unable to read a room. Although he apologized, he didn’t appear chastened or remorseful. Nor did he seem defiant or smug or even insincere. He looked disoriented, like a jet-lagged space traveler just arrived from Planet Stumpf, where deference to him is a natural law and 5,000 a commendably small number. Even the most direct barbs—“You have got to be kidding me” (Sean Duffy of Wisconsin); “I can’t believe some of what I’m hearing here” (Gregory Meeks of New York)—failed to shake him awake.

    What was going through Stumpf’s head? New research suggests that the better question may be: What wasn’t going through it?

    The historian Henry Adams was being metaphorical, not medical, when he described power as “a sort of tumor that ends by killing the victim’s sympathies.” But that’s not far from where Dacher Keltner, a psychology professor at UC Berkeley, ended up after years of lab and field experiments. Subjects under the influence of power, he found in studies spanning two decades, acted as if they had suffered a traumatic brain injury—becoming more impulsive, less risk-aware, and, crucially, less adept at seeing things from other people’s point of view.

    Sukhvinder Obhi, a neuroscientist at McMaster University, in Ontario, recently described something similar. Unlike Keltner, who studies behaviors, Obhi studies brains. And when he put the heads of the powerful and the not-so-powerful under a transcranial-magnetic-stimulation machine, he found that power, in fact, impairs a specific neural process, “mirroring,” that may be a cornerstone of empathy. Which gives a neurological basis to what Keltner has termed the “power paradox”: Once we have power, we lose some of the capacities we needed to gain it in the first place.

    That loss in capacity has been demonstrated in various creative ways. A 2006 study asked participants to draw the letter E on their forehead for others to view—a task that requires seeing yourself from an observer’s vantage point. Those feeling powerful were three times more likely to draw the E the right way to themselves—and backwards to everyone else (which calls to mind George W. Bush, who memorably held up the American flag backwards at the 2008 Olympics). Other experiments have shown that powerful people do worse at identifying what someone in a picture is feeling, or guessing how a colleague might interpret a remark.

    ...

  2. #2
    is watching you via her avatar jjdebenedictis's Avatar
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    I wonder how this could be offset, especially in politicians? Maybe the act of getting out and talking to your constituents helps alleviate the issue, i.e. get practice at empathy, and you should stay good at it (especially if they remind you regularly that you work for them. )
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  3. #3
    Beastly Fido Roxxsmom's Avatar
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    This may fall under the "if you don't use it, you lose it," umbrella neurologically. I wonder if the loss is permanent, though, or something that can be reversed if a once-powerful person is immersed in a new environment where they are no longer on top. The brain is quite malleable, so it may be possible for such people to get their social intelligence and empathy back (so brain damage might not be quite the right analogy). Unless people who strive for and attain power are actually more clueless and less socially perceptive to begin with, which is not what the article implies.

    I also wonder if something similar happens in other social species that have dominance hierarchies where a relative few (or even one) monopolize the resources, or if it's a human failing, because human institutions are complex enough to protect or insulate clueless "alphas" in a way that animals social structures can't.

    Or maybe the behaviors required to maintain dominance are different from the ones that are needed to climb the social (or corporate or political) ladder to begin with.
    Last edited by Roxxsmom; 06-20-2017 at 10:06 AM.
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  4. #4
    banned as an incurable tosspot Opty's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by Roxxsmom View Post
    This may fall under the "if you don't use it, you lose it," umbrella neurologically. I wonder if the loss is permanent, though, or something that can be reversed if a once-powerful person is immersed in a new environment where they are no longer on top. The brain is quite malleable, so it may be possible for such people to get their social intelligence and empathy back (so brain damage might not be quite the right analogy). Unless people who strive for and attain power are actually more clueless and less socially perceptive to begin with, which is not what the article implies.
    I agree. The article's title is sensationalistic and click-baity, and also wildly misleading.

    The article offered no evidence at all of brain damage. What's being postulated is, like you said, a "use it or lose it" phenomenon. I used to ride my bike all the time as a kid growing up, but I haven't been on a bike in 25 years. If I got on one now and tried to ride it, it would be a struggle (at least for a little while) because those specific neural pathways in my cerebellum and parietal lobes haven't fired in so long that they've weakened a great deal.

    That doesn't mean I've suffered "brain damage" from not riding a bike, any more than a person who hasn't done calculus since high school has suffered brain damage if they forget how to calculate derivatives.

    I also wonder if something similar happens in other social species that have dominance hierarchies where a relative few (or even one) monopolize the resources, or if it's a human failing, because human institutions are complex enough to protect or insulate clueless "alphas" in a way that animals social structures can't.
    That's an interesting question. I have friends who study animal psychology but I don't really know all that much about it. I'd be interested to find out though.

    Or maybe the behaviors required to maintain dominance are different from the ones that are needed to climb the social (or corporate or political) ladder to begin with.
    I think that's a likely explanation. This particular phenomenon with people in power seems like it's most likely the result of the fact that, once a person attains a position of authority, certain traits are emphasized and reinforced over others. The neural pathways associated with the traits used and reinforced more often will become stronger (i.e., more efficient, dominant potentiation) and those pathways associated with traits that aren't utilized much will become weaker.

    That's not damage, that's how plasticity works. The editor's clickbait title was just him or her pushing a biased, incorrect narrative (article titles are usually made by editors not the authors of the articles). That's not saying that people in power being or becoming assholes is an acceptable thing, but I don't think it benefits anyone when facts are sensationalized to fit a confirmation biased agenda, which is what it appears the editor who came up with the article's title has done here.
    Last edited by Opty; 06-22-2017 at 11:03 PM.

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