MENU

Reason.com

Free Minds & Free Markets

Science: Power Causes Brain Damage

Studies raise questions about what authority does to the mind.

A spate of recent articles corroborate what I already suspected, that holding elected office is the neurological equivalent of getting kicked in the head by a donkey.

"Subjects under the influence of power," Dacher Keltner, a professor at University of California, Berkeley found, "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."

In other words, power turns people into sociopaths.

This isn't a huge surprise to the vast majority of us who rant about power on election day and every day afterward. Republicans and Democrats want power and scramble for it, like a football. Classical liberals see power more like Frodo's ring—a corrupting influence better chucked into a volcano. In light of recent studies we ought to consider it a bit more like a concussion.

Keltner, brought into the public spotlight through a recent piece in The Atlantic, likens the accruing of power to actual brain trauma: "My own research has found that people with power tend to behave like patients who have damaged their brain's orbitofrontal lobes (the region of the frontal lobes right behind the eye sockets), a condition that seems to cause overly impulsive and insensitive behavior. Thus the experience of power might be thought of as having someone open up your skull and take out that part of your brain so critical to empathy and socially-appropriate behavior."

This makes some sense. People in command make quick decisions with limited data. Couple that with the lickspittles telling them their decisions are right all the time plus all that testosterone pumping from ordering folks around, and you become susceptible to being both impulsive and insentitive.

Democrat Eliot Spitzer is a great example of this clinical hubris. Spitzer rose to governor of New York running an anti-corruption campaign, only to plummet for dabbling in call girls. His misstep raises all sorts of questions. Why not just have an affair, something immoral but not illegal, and these days not politically fatal? Why take such clumsy, trackable steps? How do you go about finding call girls, exactly? Do you talk about the money or just leave it on the table? These are the questions I would like to ask Spitzer, or anyone familiar with escort services and who has a general idea of call girl pricing.

My point is: power led Spitzer to make stupid decisions and assume he was bullet-proof.

In addition to making bad decisions, the powerful also suffer from a decline in empathy. Neurologist Sukhvinder Obhi, an expert in the use of the transcranial-magnetic-stimulation machine (you know, one of those), identified in powerful people impaired neuron mirroring which made them less understanding.

But don't politicians make a living bleating on about how sympathetic they are to your problems, which is why they intend to fight for you, your family and friends, school district and hometown, hopes, dreams, and pet gopher? Benevolent intentions and a lack of empathy results in a disdainful paternalism, like banning sodas and taxing cigarettes. Because the imbeciles you're fighting for are too stupid to run their own moronic lives.

Power-induced brain damage raises troubling questions about all those suits and technocrats who slink into Washington. What if you need a fully-functional orbitofrontal lobe to make decisions that affect millions? It certainly sounds like an important brain glob. Maybe the heady tonic of power makes leaders less wary of unforeseen consequences, or overly confident of their capacity to solve everything?

The antidote to all this spiralling brain damage might be to put America on a power diet. (And to eat more fish. Excellent source of Omege 3 fatty acid.) It's worked for me—I have spent years avoiding power at every turn, and my orbitofrontal lobe is swollen with health and empathy. Maybe if our leaders in Washington exercised lighter purviews over our lives it would place less strain on their gray matter. It would certainly put less strain on ours.

Editor's Note: We invite comments and request that they be civil and on-topic. We do not moderate or assume any responsibility for comments, which are owned by the readers who post them. Comments do not represent the views of Reason.com or Reason Foundation. We reserve the right to delete any comment for any reason at any time. Report abuses.

  • Citizen X - #6||

    I've been saying this for years (but only because it's fucking obvious), so it's nice to have scientific backup.

  • Scarecrow Repair & Chippering||

    Confirmation bias! Confirmation bias!!!!

  • SQRLSY One||

    This is why we need truly accurate brain scans, to include a power-lust meter and an empathy-ometer coupled with a humility-ometer. Everyone will be free to get scanned, or not, and to disclose results, or not.

    But I for one, will refuse to select a shrink, a lawyer, a business partner, a wife or husband, or... most especially... A politician!!! ... Unless and until I know their brain-scan results!!!!

    I think that the "tech" is already here... All we need is to make it more affordable, put it in a box, and put a bow-tied ribbon on it...

  • Chipper Morning, Now #1||

    I remain unconvinced that it is power turning people into sociopaths rather than sociopaths being the ones that have what it takes to obtain power. However, on further reflection, probably both are true.

  • ||

    it explains how Hillary went from being the Smartest Woman in America to retarded. either that or the booze.

  • creech||

    I thought it was because she had some terrible disease and was about to croak at any minute?

  • ||

    "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."

    That's weird. All the people I know who've suffered TBI had more traditional symptoms like, nausea, vomiting, headaches, blurred vision...

    This sounds more like someone encountered a group of assholes, declared themselves not to be one, and is distinctly looking for a way to distinguish themselves.

  • Illocust||

    You're thinking short term injury like a concussion vs. long term injury like a tumor or just straight physical damage to the area. The long term kind causes a near complete change in personality.

  • ||

    The long term kind causes a near complete change in personality.

    Which is different from things like addiction and plain old behavioral change because reasons. You don't generally need transcranial-magnetic-stimulation to detect tumors and sudden and rather decidedly pathological behaviors develop with and without the trauma.

    The bias is pretty obvious, they assume mirroring to be a higher or universally good/required function when, in fact, it's displayed in lesser organisms and it's purpose in our brains isn't fully understood (let alone subsequent moral ramifications). I'm fairly certain we all know people who over-empathize and/or over-nurture and would just as readily put them in the 'power-hungry psychopath' category.

  • ||

    I mean for Christ's sake half the article could've come out of The Onion;

    In May, the Royal Society of Medicine co-hosted a conference of the Daedalus Trust—an organization that Owen founded for the study and prevention of hubris.
  • Mark22||

    "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."

    That's weird. All the people I know who've suffered TBI had more traditional symptoms like, nausea, vomiting, headaches, blurred vision...

    TBI can cause all sorts of symptoms. The article is sharpshooting on someone with specific frontal lobe damage, a fairly rare form of TBI.

  • Rhywun||

    How do we know we're not confusing cause and effect?

  • Citizen X - #6||

    Either way, the point is, people in power are psychopaths. And that's a medical diagnosis!

  • Rhywun||

    Agreed. I still think brain damage causes sociopaths to seek political office but *shrug*. Perhaps they are related phenomena that build on each other.

  • Citizen X - #6||

    There's definitely feedback at work.

  • Chipper Morning, Now #1||

    Runaway positive feedback.

  • ||

    How do we know we're not confusing cause and effect?

    Power-hungry assholes have been known to take up the mantle of science in order to feel better about telling other people how to behave.

  • Illocust||

    Hmmm, not sure if this study actually bothered too, but separating them out would be fairly easy with the proper study procedure. Do a test ahead of time, then separate everyone out into two different types of groups. One where the group gets to choose its leader and one where you randomly assign a leader. Have them do some task where the leader has significant power over the others in the group for two to three months, then test everybody again (leaders and followers).

  • GroundTruth||

    follow it over time

  • ||

    Of course, this phenomena excludes Obama. He was the great benevolent leader who did't allow power to corrupt him.

  • Citizen X - #6||

    The fact that he looked like Gollum after eight years in office is just a coincidence.

  • Dillinger||

    the brain damaged may also seek power?

  • Diane Reynolds (Paul.)||

    Of course we're going to see this in a political context, but it applies very broadly. I'm always wary of scientifically quantifying behavior pathology and assholish behavior, eg 'Scientific study proves Republicans are hateful!'.

    But as I was explaining to my daughter the other day about mega-stars and celebrities, that it's not surprising that many of them are a little nuts. If you're surrounded by people whose job it is to cater to your every whim-- that's a kind of power-- that you can lose perspective and become... kind of insane.

  • Citizen X - #6||

    Oh, the same pathology can certainly affect celebrities, corporate executives, educators and other low-level bureaucrats, pundits, heads of families, etc.

  • Dan S.||

    The famous aphorism ascribed to Lord Acton (whoever he was) basically said the same thing: "Power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely". No need to dress it up in "scientific" garb. It's not about science, it is simply about human nature.

  • Citizen X - #6||

    "Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power tends to corrupt absolutely. Great men are almost always very bad men" - Lord Acton

  • ||

    But as I was explaining to my daughter the other day about mega-stars and celebrities, that it's not surprising that many of them are a little nuts.

    Einstein kinda traditionally defines an eccentric, Tesla and Newton almost certainly suffered mental diseases. James Watson and Kary Mullis are questionably seated on their rockers. Abnormal lives and abnormal brains are associated and with little evidence implicating causality.

    Was Hoover a brain injured sociopath or just a plain old Oedipally-fixated, socially repressed tranny? Yes.

  • The Last American Hero||

    He was a terrible interventionist that should have taken a page from Harding and Coolidge rather than the idiot progressives. Didn't realize he was a tranny.

    Oh wait, wrong Hoover.

  • Lester224||

    Same problem with the very rich. Loss of empathy.

    https://tinyurl.com/gtb7obl

  • Curt||

    At first, I assumed the headline "Science: Power Causes Brain Damage" was just a typical example of a bad headline that misses the actual point of the article. Then, I saw that the author actually started making brain damage references at the end of the article. But, then I read the quick bio and saw the author was a comedian. So, is this a jokey, Onion-style article or supposed to be serious?

    So, what you're saying is that people will act a certain way to get power. Then, once they've got it, they no longer maintain the approach that they used to get the power. Instead, they start act like someone who has power. No shit?!?!

    What's next? Is science going to prove that after people are served a meal at a restaurant, they no longer focus on getting to the restaurant and ordering? Instead, they turn their attention to eating?

  • SQRLSY One||

    Here is your NSF science funding, we'd like to know about the restaurant and eating thing, can you knock this thing out for the $3 million here? If so, just sign the check and go... If not, let's talk...

  • Curt||

    I assume that first you'll need my abstract in order to understand who the villain will be in my research.

  • SQRLSY One||

    As long as your villain is NOT Government Almighty, we're downishly, hippagroovalistically cool with it...

  • Drave Robber||

    Can't we have two or three drinks and a little confirmation bias on this sunny Friday?

  • Curt||

    Not until after lunch.

  • ||

    lol; "How do you go about finding call girls, exactly? Do you talk about the money or just leave it on the table? These are the questions I would like to ask Spitzer, or anyone familiar with escort services and who has a general idea of call girl pricing."

    I've always thought if I were to become rich/famous I'd have a 'man in black' keeping me out of trouble, getting me rides, legal age women, etc...

    I imagine we only here about the idiots that don't do this and wake up with an underage prostitute with coke all over their face.

  • The Last American Hero||

    I'd get somebody like Manute from Sin City 2.

  • ||

    Or Breaking Bad's Mike, serve your revenge clean instead of cold. If required!

  • loveconstitution1789||

    Science: Power Causes Brain Damage
    The only cure is to cut spending and government by 50%+

  • ||

    No. Government is empathetic, *we* are the government. It's those unfeeling corporate crooks who need a 50+% tax HIKE! But we all knew that without the fancy-shmancy brain scans.

    /sarc

  • IceTrey||

    This explains why cops all become sociopaths.

  • Dillinger||

    [url=https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cRLVgFNTnIg] when do we get the freakin guns [/url]

  • Dillinger||

    link fail. bummer.

  • Azathoth!!||

    And, like clockwork, once the left is out of power, out come the articles about how power corrupts.

  • Citizen X - #6||

    Azathoth!!'s comment here is fine evidence of a different psychopathology, but not one that's relevant to the subject of the article.

  • Mark22||

    "Brain damage" means actual physical damage, not "behaves like".

  • MHaber||

    Solution: Decentralization of power to the maximum extent possible.

  • IceTrey||

    Limit authority to the retaliatory use of force and no one will have any power.

  • MHaber||

    Solution: Decentralization of power to the maximum extent possible.

  • Robert||

    How do you go about finding call girls, exactly? Do you talk about the money or just leave it on the table?


    We have a resource like Norma Jean Almodovar, & you don't think to ask her?

  • Feminist Killjoy||

    Andrew Heaton is a treasure. Let's lock him up!

    I've always found it unfortunate that the best leaders are often those that only step up because no one else will, at least in my own experience. But I'd never trust a politician who humble brags about how everyone around him forced him/her to run for office. There's also this weird climate with leadership jobs that seems to self select lazy assholes. You can't promote out of a pool of regulars because someone will be resentful, so you bring in some nobody who knows nothing but used to tell people what to do at another place. Sometimes it seems like there's this spawning pond of CEOs that just get passed around from place to place.

    Most HOAs are evil, but my parents belong to a neighborhood association that does the bare minimum (gardens, directory, motorcycle cop) and shuffles through nearly every house looking for officers to manage it. People step up and do the extra work, then step down the next year. Being a leader should be a chore.

  • Qsl||

    There's something to be said as to whether it is actually the power or the structure- numerous people exercise at least petite power... are all parents sociopaths?

    One of the best MDs I've known relayed to me that the purpose of medical school was to weed out even the mildly empathetic so only the sociopaths remained. You needed to be a sociopath in order to endure the hazing of residency and make decisive decisions at 3:00AM. Even moreso if you wanted to be a surgeon. Don't know how much stock I put in that, but it did make an odd amount of sense.

  • josef23||

    How many of you know about Galaxy S9 Release Date ?

  • DrZ||

    Does this means politicians have a brain? If so, it's an eye opener for me.

GET REASON MAGAZINE

Get Reason's print or digital edition before it’s posted online