Power Causes Brain Damage
“If power were a prescription drug,” the article began, “it would come with a long list of known side effects.” It has been said that power can corrupt, but it can also intoxicate, misinform, blind, traumatize, and, simply, egotize.
Studies out of McMaster University in Ontario, Canada, and UC Berkeley seem to affirm how historian Henry Adams described power as “a sort of tumor that ends by killing the victim’s sympathies.” The Berkeley study (spanning two decades) revealed that subjects under the influence of power “acted as if they had suffered a traumatic brain injury—becoming more impulsive, less adept at seeing things from other people’s point of view.” The McMaster study may provide clues to the “power paradox” – which states that once we have power we lose some of the capacities we needed to gain it in the first place. When heads of the powerful and not-so-powerful were placed under a transcranial-magnetic-stimulation machine, it was discovered that power impairs a neural process called mirroring. Mirroring contributes to our ability to empathize with another person.
Once we have power we lose some of the capacities we needed to gain it in the first place.
The power paradox has been studied in 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.” George W. Bush may have demonstrated this tendency when he held up the American flag backwards at the 2008 Olympics.
Power, it turns out, makes us socially obtuse or worse, and professionally it leads to short-term success at the expense of relationships. Choice Theory confirms that certain kinds of power do exactly that.
Every human being, according to Choice Theory, is born with the Basic Need for power, although not all power is the same. Consider the difference, for instance, between power to and power over. Both kinds of power are attempts to fulfill the power need, yet the results can be markedly different.
We fulfill our power need by being able, competent, and successful in what we do. It is need-satisfying to achieve what we set out to accomplish. The power need, though, can also be met by having power over other people. Power over shows up in boss management styles that rely on punishment and reward and that seek to make others do what the boss wants them to do. It is difficult to create and maintain caring relationships when power over is part of the equation.
According to Choice Theory, our Basic Needs strengths are hardwired at birth. There is nothing good or bad about the Basic Need strengths – a high Basic Need for love and belonging is not necessarily good and a high need for power is not necessarily bad. As individuals our need strengths are what they are; the stronger the need, the stronger the urge to have that need met. The thing about the need for power, though, is that we can choose to stay in the power to mode, rather than the power over mode. A high power need person can still focus on being successful and achieving goals, just not at the expense of another person.
Like a prescription drug, power has side effects. It can get things done, often more efficiently, but it can also harm 1) the person doing the bossing, as well as 2) the person being bossed.
Tired of empathy deficiency?
Let go of power over
and embrace power to.
* The article, Power Causes Brain Damage, can be found in The Atlantic (July/August 2017) magazine.
A really wonderful group of teachers (and a wonderful pastor) took The Better Plan 1 class at Pacific Union College this past week (June 26-29). They may have learned a few things from me, but I learned just as much from them.