Lord John Dalberg-Acton, a 19th century British politician, famously said that “absolute power corrupts absolutely”. This is true to some extent. Power can make people do immoral, unethical, and harmful things both to others and to themselves. But can power cause actual impairment in the brain?
It seems that the answer is yes. Scientists have found that people in a position of power exhibit an impairment in a certain neural process. This neural process is called “mirroring”, which may be a foundation of empathy. Thus, gaining power may make us lose something that helped us gain power in the first place. This is something that UC Berkeley psychology professor Dacher Keltner calls a “power paradox”.
McMaster University neuroscientist Sukhvinder Obhi, however, thinks that the problem is rooted in the brain, not just behavior. Obhi had taken brain scans of the powerful and those who weren't as powerful. His findings showed the impairment in mirroring mentioned above.
What, however, is mirroring and why is it essential to empathy? It's a kind of unconscious mimicry in which we somehow live vicariously through others. When we see someone doing something, the part of the brain that we would use to do the same thing lights up. Obhi found in his experiments that non-powerful participants had no problems with mirroring. Participants who were not actually that powerful but were made to feel powerful exhibited some trouble with this neural process.
However, if participants were aware of mirroring, would they perform better in the tests? Obhi tested this possibility as well in another study. Participants were aware of what mirroring was and had to make an effort to increase or decrease their mirroring response. The study found that even concerted effort failed in making powerful people more empathetic to others.
This explains why power makes us lose something that helped us gain power in the first place. As people get more powerful, they have less of a need to be able to read others. They have less of a need to cajole things out of others. This can be beneficial in some ways, as power enables people to screen out irrelevant or peripheral information. Of course, it can also make the powerful frustratingly or even dangerously obtuse.
We can therefore assume that the feeling of power corrupts us and makes us less empathetic to others. We can't even make ourselves more empathetic if we tried. However, there is a bright side to all this. It's possible that this impairment has negative impacts only some of the time.
It's difficult to make the feeling of being powerful stop affecting our brains this way. Keltner suggests that the only way to regain mirroring is to stop feeling powerful. Thus, the effects of power on the brain isn't permanent. However, it can be hard for some to simply give up that feeling of power. It bears knowing, of course, that doing so can be easy. Power corrupts, as we all know, but that corruption doesn't have to run deep or be permanent.
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