This whole Spitzer affair got me thinking about the psychology of power. When you look around the world, it’s clear that so many of our problems are due, at least in part, to abuses of power. From Mugabe to Putin, Chavez to Cheney, there’s obviously something deeply intoxicating and dangerous about positions of power. (Especially when that power feels absolute.) Being in complete control – or having the illusion of complete control – can seriously warp our sense of morality, fairness and ethics. (Of course, the case of Eliot Spitzer, and perhaps Bill Clinton, would argue that a sense of power can also distort our sexual mores…) And yet, we know so little about this Machiavellian impulse.
While there have certainly been some interesting studies done on the behavioral effects of power – I’m thinking of this recent study and some experimental permutations of the Dictator Game – it’s clear that we really don’t know what’s going on. A big part of the problem is that scientists can only study power under artificial experimental conditions, when “power” means having control of an economic game. But I’m more interested in cases of chronic power, when people start to internalize their sense of entitlement. That’s when the bad stuff starts to happen. Obviously, it’s not easy to organize a brain imaging experiment that relies on Senators, Presidents, Prime Ministers, Despots and Governors, but boy would that data be interesting. I’m guessing the cingulate is involved.