The Insidious Effects of Power on Our Brains

Fagjun | Published 2018-01-01 16:50

Why do some people in power abuse those that they have power over? Scientists explore the ways that power affects our brains and our interactions with others.

Recent months have seen numerous allegations of sexual harassment and abuse against numerous men in power, including but not limited to President Donald Trump, Hollywood mogul Harvey Weinstein, actor Kevin Spacey, television show host Matt Lauer, Senator Al Franken, and former Alabama Supreme Court Chief Justice Roy Moore. It has long been known that having power does something to us, perhaps even corrupts us, but the how and why of this aren’t as well known.


Studies have found that power does indeed do something to the brains of those who wield it. Both the psychology and physiology of the powerful are different from the psychology and physiology of average folks. The prefrontal cortex, the heart, and everything in between are all different in the powerful. So what do these differences drive the powerful to do?

The Imbalance of Power

Harvey Weinstein's abuse of his power has led to a reckoning in Hollywood and many other industries. [Photo by Christian Alminana/Getty]

Harvey Weinstein's abuse of his power has led to a reckoning in Hollywood and many other industries. [Photo by Christian Alminana/Getty]



It seems that feeling powerful—or, indeed, actually being in power—makes people less empathetic and altruistic. UC Berkeley psychology professor Dacher Keltner, who has been studying the brains of the powerful for decades, has found that the powerful are less empathetic than average people. This is because feeling in power can make your prefrontal cortex, which enables our understanding of the feelings and experiences of others, disengage. Powerful people have also been found to be less able to “mirror” or mimic the behaviors of people they’re conversing with.


Another study, meanwhile, has found that people driving high-powered high-end cars were more likely to bend the rules of the road that other people abide by. It has also been found that those with higher societal stature were more likely to be greedy, in spite of already having more than others do.


In addition, people in leadership positions have been found to be less susceptible to stress. Studies show that these people have consistently demonstrated lower levels of the stress hormone cortisol and higher levels of testosterone.


It has also been found that those who don’t experience as much stress as others are more likely to successfully attain positions of power. Someone born into wealth and privilege who already has some degree of power, for example, may be able to successfully apply for better job positions because they’re not impeded by stress.

The Higher You Rise

The more powerful you are, the more you're afraid of losing that power.



As if there weren’t enough imbalance between the powerful and the average, it has also been found that powerful and wealthy people also tend to live longer and healthier lives. This isn’t really surprising, but researchers have confirmed something that we’ve probably known for a long time. According to a particular research, the wealthiest Americans are expected to live six years longer than those living below the poverty line.


Then again, it’s not all sunshine and roses. After all, the higher you rise, the harder you fall. There’s also evidence that when a powerful person anticipates the loss of their power or stature, their cortisol can jump to high levels.

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