It's Official: People In Power Act As If They Have Brain Damage

from the absolute-power-corrupts-absolutely dept

You’ve heard the phrase “power corrupts,” but have you looked at the evidence that suggests this is actually supported by a variety of studies? Julian Sanchez points us to a report that looks at some of the studies of people in power (which actually builds off of a Wall Street Journal article on the same topic — beware the paywall), which notes, first, that getting into a position of power is best done by being kind and empathetic (rather than nasty and backstabbing), but once you get there, study after study suggests that people lose some aspect of critical thinking skills:

“It’s an incredibly consistent effect,” [psychologist Dacher] Keltner says. “When you give people power, they basically start acting like fools. They flirt inappropriately, tease in a hostile fashion, and become totally impulsive.” Mr. Keltner compares the feeling of power to brain damage, noting that people with lots of authority tend to behave like neurological patients with a damaged orbito-frontal lobe, a brain area that’s crucial for empathy and decision-making. Even the most virtuous people can be undone by the corner office.

Why does power lead people to flirt with interns and solicit bribes and fudge financial documents? According to psychologists, one of the main problems with authority is that it makes us less sympathetic to the concerns and emotions of others. For instance, several studies have found that people in positions of authority are more likely to rely on stereotypes and generalizations when judging other people. They also spend much less time making eye contact, at least when a person without power is talking.

While I have to admit that some of the studies used here sound a bit questionable on the methodology, and it sounds like a lot more comprehensive research can be done, it certainly explains a lot. Some of the studies are quite interesting, suggesting that people with even a fleeting feeling of power can start acting this way.

In a recent study led by Richard Petty, a psychologist at Ohio State, undergraduates role-played a scenario between a boss and an underling. Then the students were exposed to a fake advertisement for a mobile phone. Some of the ads featured strong arguments for buying the phone, such as its long-lasting battery, while other ads featured weak or nonsensical arguments. Interestingly, students that pretended to be the boss were far less sensitive to the quality of the argument. It’s as if it didn’t even matter what the ad said–their minds had already been made up.

So, even for pretend bosses, they suddenly felt like they could make snap decisions without caring about the details as much. Another interesting report looked at Supreme Court decisions, with a slightly scary result:

Deborah Gruenfeld, a psychologist at the Stanford Business School, demonstrated a similar principle by analyzing more than 1,000 decisions handed down by the United States Supreme Court between 1953 and 1993. She found that, as justices gained power on the court, or became part of a majority coalition, their written opinions tended to become less complex and nuanced. They considered fewer perspectives and possible outcomes. Of course, the opinions written from the majority position are what actually become the law of the land.

Jesse Walker suggests one reason why this might be outside of power corruption: “Perhaps as the justices’ status grows, they’re more prone to making their subordinates do their work.” Alternatively, you could argue that those who were in power felt they didn’t need to make as nuanced an argument, because it just wasn’t worth the time. That doesn’t mean the nuances weren’t there, though. Either way, a potentially interesting point, worthy of more research.

So, how do you fix the mess? Well, transparency seems to be the main suggestion — which is why it’s so troubling that our government seems to continually move away from transparency (even if it gives lip service to greater transparency). The WSJ article highlights how some basic transparency for those in power tends to actually decrease some of the more corrupt activities, while a decrease in oversight tends to lead to greater corruption. This is, of course, no surprise, but acts as yet another reminder for why greater transparency in government is important — and why those in power are so often against it.

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Comments on “It's Official: People In Power Act As If They Have Brain Damage”

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Nina Paley (profile) says:


I feel better about my aversion to having interns or employees. I like keeping my operations small. Some would call that “self-sabotage” or “low self-esteem” or “needing to control everything,” but I think it’s really because I don’t want to lose my freaking mind, the way so many directors in my career past seemed to have lost their minds. Or maybe it’s my soul I’m talking about.

Dark Helmet (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re: whew

Well, it’s interesting, because I think the matter can actually be boiled down to something that authors deal with all the time: perspective.

Empathy may be something we’re all born with to some degree, but I think applying empathy successfully is truly a skill. It’s difficult to have employees, particularly in artistic endeavors, because you’re so invested in your work that it’s difficult to see it from the outsider’s perspective. That common phrase, “put yourself in the other person’s shoes”, sounds simple, but it’s incredibly difficult to do in practice.

I think it’s part of the reason the CwF+RtB stuff can be so simple yet difficult to pull off. It means giving others an incentive, and to do that properly, you have to have some idea of what incentivizes them. That is really, REALLY difficult. What jazzes me up about my novels may not work globally, and what works globally may not be all that appealing to me. What’s tough is realizing that, despite the fact that it’s my art, what others think is really what’s most important….

Anonymous Coward says:

Also, those in power probably have less time to properly evaluate decisions compared with those with less power. Those in power tend to be less educated in various topics outside their field and are expected to make decisions regarding multiple fields whereas those outside of power tend to only give opinions on fields they are more familiar with.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re:

(and, I think a very important reason is that those in power have a lot of political pressures influencing them in various directions, such as lobbyists with conflicts of interest telling them what they think is best. These political influences can skew a decision makers decisions and take time away from allowing them to see things from various other perspectives. So in a sense they can get brainwashed. Those outside of power aren’t being harassed so much by lobbyists. This is why transparency is good, it allows everyone to see how those in power are being one-sidedly brainwashed and to attempt to present opposing viewpoints to counter the brainwashing).

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re:

Delegating to those with experience is often a basic concept that most managers are taught. What the studies are showing isn’t about time or experience, but more about the neurological aspect of having power. Someone who is given power could easily delegate duties that are better handled by specialists.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re:

“Delegating to those with experience is often a basic concept that most managers are taught.”

Of course, and I don’t deny that, but there is a level of trust there that’s required. If the decision is a bad one the delegates don’t generally get blamed, those in power who delegated the decisions get blamed.

“Someone who is given power could easily delegate duties that are better handled by specialists.”

But finding a trustworthy delegate in every field that the decision maker must make decisions in isn’t always so easy. The decision maker may hire ten good delegates for ten different fields, nine might be good, but if even one is bad it can greatly skew the decision makers decisions.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re:

Also, usually bad decisions have narrow benefits to special interest groups and widespread costs to the public. The public, being a much larger group of people and being that the costs are widespread, has a much more difficult time organizing their efforts to educate the decision maker and has less incentive to because the costs are more widespread vs more consecrated benefits towards a smaller and more organized lobbying special interest group attempting to brainwash the politician.

Anonymous Coward says:

Why can’t more leaders be like Captain Picard? I mean, really. When his subordinates speak, he listens to them, and then makes rational decisions based on what they say. His subordinates are experts in their fields–medical, engineering, etc., and he really values and trusts their opinions.

He is a paragon of good leadership. Maybe it’s only possible in fiction.

Robert Toler (user link) says:

Re: Re:

I would suggest some of you do a history lesson. The most influential leader in human history was Genghis Khan. Though the typical person automatically jumps to “barbarian”, ones that have read and learned about the man, would all see his unmatched qualities and abilities. Leaders that want a lesson in true leadership should read about him. I should add most leaders have! I would suggest Genghis Khan and the Making of the Modern World, its the best factual book about his rise. For example: Khan abolished torture, granted universal religious freedoms, and smashed feudal systems of aristocratic privilege. His movement and merging of cultures created cannon balls and elementary missiles, paper currency and so much more, its simply jaw dropping. His respect for culture, land, life and leadership is a lesson for everyone. Once you get by the simple barbarian stereotype, and realize that we’re no less barbarian than him, you’ll have a new respect for leadership in general, hands down. If you’re an intellectual you’ll love me for this reference. If you’re not, stay narrow and ignorant! Make it a great one folks!

Pierre Wolff (profile) says:

Double-edged sword of transparency

As the privacy debate raises the issue of how transparent people’s personal lives should be and whether we should have control over them, this site of the debate clearly calls for transparency beyond the control of the individual. Wondering if transparency and loosing our privacy is the burden society now carries as a result of the abuses in public trust (fm people in government and business)?

Sneeje (profile) says:

Seems to ignore

Not many of those explanations are speaking to me.

This seems to ignore that those in power often (and arguably have to) consider and value things differently given that they have a broader context in which they must operate.

Middle managers have to balance their subordinates needs with the their superior’s expectations which are often in conflict: subordinates want the greatest compensation possible while superiors want the highest profit for the enterprise. Those don’t have to be mutually exclusive, but it is incredibly nuanced to figure out how to optimize that balance.

I do agree with the transparency objective, but it depends on what you mean. I once took a course on practical ethics and one of the main things I took away from that whenever there was a hard decision to make among a group of people, try to make explicit as many of the implicit value trade-offs being made among the participants. In practice, this is very hard to do, but well worth the effort.

out_of_the_blue says:

What a trivial "study".

“They flirt inappropriately, tease in a hostile fashion, and become totally impulsive.”

Just take the — entirely obvious, how did they a grant to do such — “results” and apply it to those who’ve been filthy rich for four and five generations, and then it’s: deliberately contrive wars on false pretexts that result in death or injuries to millions.

Dave says:

What Chris Smith said.

Transparency is nice and all, but the real problem is power itself. Decentralize and disperse power as widely as possible and de-politicize more areas of life that have been hijacked by government and its army of petty bureaucrats in the first place.

Frodo’s task was to destroy the ring of power, not try to wield it wisely. That is the point: Power — which I would define as “control over others” — cannot be wielded wisely by human beings. Minimize it in every way possible if you want a sane, humane, peaceful, and free society.

Send the egomaniacs packing.

Will Sizemore (profile) says:

I'm with Sneeje, to a degree.

I was in the US Army and I would qualify my former position as middle management. No I’m a new employee at the bottom of the food chain in a company that has, for many years, seen both the good and the bad with regard to hasty decision-making and I’m certainly not proud of one of those recent decisions my leaderhsip here made.

The great thing is; neither are many of the ones who made that particular decision and the truth is that while the consequences of that decision were miniscule, they regret certain aspects, and certainly didn’t like how a hasty decision was required from on high.

That being said, while I was in the Army, I saw many hasty decisions being made that with a light application of empathy, the situation could have been favorably resolved and the careers of certain soldiers could have been saved.

I’ve seen good, empathetic leaders either be pushed aside because empathy takes too long on a battlefield (or in a training environment) and those who even in training will make such terrible decisions and even though junior personnel will speak up, they aren’t heard over the ego pumping that the senior personnel and these lobbyists use to psych each other up.

This one Army exercise I participated in several years ago speaks to my point. I was a Specialist (E-4) in a unit where another Specialist (E-4) was flagged as a simulated casualty of an Improvised Explosive Device and he was the driver of his utility truck. There was another Specialist in the vehicle cab with him and a 1st Lieutenant (O-2) as well. The Lieutenant was the senior soldier on the ground. The Observer/Controller of the exercise informed them that they were taking small arms fire as well, and that the vehicle was not disabled.

The Lieutenant pushed the Specialist with the simulated injuries out of the truck and started driving off. The Specialist, laughing his ass off, got up and ran to the back of the moving truck to climb in.

I called a cease fire. They wouldn’t listen. I complained to everyone of authority on the ground. They wouldn’t listen. Back in the living areas, I told my Captains, (O-3) that if that particular Lieutenant deployed with us to Iraq the next year, that he would not work in the same building with me. I promised them that one of us two would not com home.

We deployed and his office was placed in another building.

The other Specialist deployed with us and stayed safe for that deployment and another, as did that Liuetenant, who made Captain. Just before I made Staff Sergeant (E-6) I saw an Army times issue where that same former Specialist, a Sergeant (E-5) died in a training incident.

His senior leadership there failed him as well. He died because his ‘leaders’ made the wrong snap decisions and made those decisions without empathy.

The difference is, in the 4 years of these bad leaders making these decisions I’ve portrayed, only one person actually lost his life and countless others were saved. I support snap decisions in conflict, but not in training, and certainly not in the business world.

I too am a big picture planner. But I do my absolute best to know everyone on the team personally and address their issues before I address my own. I will gladly fail to meet a timeline because my people are being taken care of.

I miss my buddy, too. The last time we saw each other, we weren’t on good terms, either.

Anonymous Coward says:

lol, its easy to look BACK on something and have access to the BIG PICTURE and point out flaws and place blame

if you “gladly” fail to meet your time line, your not a leader, your a failure, good to see you started your fail post with “I was in the army” dont think the army needs more failures like you who cant accomplish the mission

Will Sizemore (profile) says:

Hind sight is 20/20, yes, but my military career WAS big picture analysis. I’m sure that the former Lieutenant/Captain whatever if he is still in the Army, sees how his actions that day were wrong. That commander was later relieved for similar decisions. I saw the threat as it happened and tried to warn them.

My story was to illustrate just how stupid leaders can be. They rely too much on their subordinates to make decisions without providing the proper mentorship (good Army word) and when its time to pay up, the junior person suffers. That commanding officer should have taken the Lieutenant and the Specialist, as well as anyone else involved, and counseled us all that it was a stupid thing to do, and it was very dangerous. If he had, maybe my buddy would still be alive.

Anonymous Coward @ 10:18 AM, you seem to come from a Survival of the Fittest frame of mind. People like you are the source of the problem here. Please, get right.

vadim (profile) says:

I don't think 'nice' people have chances to get power

I do not agree that nice people have good chances to reach power.
First of all people don’t reach power by chance, one need to desire it very much.
So initially one need to think of himself as better than his entourage, as more deserving position of authority and power.
Second, the competition for power is as any other competition – if you cheat you have better chances to win (unless there is a strong control mechanism – and we don’t have it for political struggle).
So if you only show ‘niceness’ you have better chances than if you are genuinely nice.
The honesty and integrity are handicaps in this competition because you you’re honest you can arrive to conclusion that your fellow competitor’s ideas and proposals are better than yours, so you have drop out form the competition.
Now if cheaters are better chances to win it is evident that between winners will be a lot of cheaters.
(Which leads to conclusion that a proportion of cheaters are much bigger in power elites than in regular population – which explain pretty well the sorry state of the world affaires)
And when they arrive to power the can stop pretending to be ‘nice’ and show their real nature.

Will Sizemore (profile) says:

Sad, But True

Yes, mostly this is true, no matter how sad it is.

While you can’t survive being only nice, a fair balance is key.

To quote one of my favorite bands; The Offspring, “There’s more to livin’ than only surving…” though I really don’t think that is an excuse to lie, cheat, and steal. As long as we LET our leaders get away with this, we’re guilty as well.

Some of us in the Army, frustrated with the last few Presidential elections came up with an idea; Vote of No Confidence. That would mostly prevent a vote for ‘the lesser of two evils’ when the only two candidates are unsatisfactory to the American Public. If the Popular Vote fails to provide a candidate with at least 51%, the Electoral College will NOT be able to appoint either candidate on the ballot and will instead send the parties back to the drawing board for a new campaign; one in which the previous cadidates would NOT be allowed to participate in, or even speak publicly in regard to. Perhaps then we won’t get Democrats putting Clinton and Obama against each other for the sole purpose of seeming ‘progressive’ and perhaps the Republicans won’t sit on their laurels and think too confidently of themselves.

I’m not saying that I supported either presidential candidate wholeheartedly in the last two elections, but I certainly would have supported a vote of No Confidence in either.

Oh, and has anyone noticed that politics and entertainment are synonymous these days? For the last 40 years, our entire entertainment industry has made crazy, unseen millions in promoting political agendas. Has anyone seen Star Wars or Star Trek? I love them both but WOW are they a political machine!

Anonymous Coward says:

I think perhaps this is because a person with power over another doesn’t need to use empathy or reasoning in the same way the a person trying to convince an equal to do something has to. If you are trying to persuade someone to do something, you need empathy to gauge there interests, the ability to give them good reasons as to why your course of action furthers those interests and possibly a little generosity to help ensure you have some goodwill the next time you need to work together.

If you are in a authority position over someone, at the end of the day you can just tell them to do as you say without having to give them a good reason, which means that a person in power can let egotism, spite, laziness, stupidity and other vices cloud there judgement without it immediately coming back to burn them as it would if they pulled that stuff with an equal partner who is capable of simply saying “no, not going to do that” if they think an idea is flawed.

In a mutual arrangement, involved parties have to haggle until both sides interests are met. In a power hierarchy, no matter how well intentioned the leader, they just do not have the same incentives to act with reason and empathy.

Dudeman Someguy (user link) says:

Those whom cannot rule themselves cannot rule others

More fuel for the social-anarchists among us. The more study done in the sociological/psychological/political effects of hierarchical rule/classification, the more one will see the futility in placing power upon the few.

Democracy is an illusion to convince the masses they are able to participate in the decisions made by their oligarchs. All government is evil as all humans are inherently corrupt.

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