The Frontal Cortex

The Psychology of Power

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.

Comments

  1. #1 Martha Blacklock
    March 11, 2008

    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.

    Ordinary men reared in almost any society ought to tell you something about internalized senses of entitlement, no?

  2. #2 Dunc
    March 11, 2008

    The other problem with any experiment dealing with power in anything like real situations is that you’re going to end up with the same problems the Stanford Prison Experiment had. And there’s no way in hell you’d get it past an ethics committee.

  3. #3 JD Johnson
    March 11, 2008

    I wonder if the memorization experiment that you described earlier has any relative bearing with cases like Spitzer and Clinton. Because they’re in such high stress positions, it’s possible the brain matter that governs their emotional constraint becomes less inhibited, and, as such, they found themselves in morally compromised positions.

  4. #4 jope
    March 11, 2008

    Maybe not just the perception of degree of control, but also the scale of risk. There’s at least one study out there (ack, why do I not just bookmark everything?) showing that people make poorer choices when the stakes are higher, i.e. that the lure of big wins ramps faster than the fear of big losses. The study I’m thinking of was done from the perspective of financial management, but it seems plausible that generalizes to other areas of risk-taking.

    If you then figure in “bleed” between decisions that are juxtaposed, even when their content is unrelated, that would explain a lot of stupid misbehavior. Ideally, we could make use of this latter effect to nudge the scale issue in the other direction: Require officials to prune miniature bonsai trees every morning and see if they start doing their jobs better. =)

  5. #5 Tony Jeremiah
    March 11, 2008

    I suspect research on narcissism might be useful in addressing this, since current studies suggest that the narcissists’ perception of self is out-of-balance as defined by two components: sense of agency (concerned with achievement and power traits) and sense of community (concerned with morality in the context of relationships with others and society). Basically, the research suggests that the agency self outweighs the communal self in narcissists.

    Perhaps power acquisition leads to this imbalance, or, such an imbalance exists in the first place and leads to the desire to acquire power.

  6. #6 Ben Wraith
    March 12, 2008

    Is it possible that an element of this is that we also underestimate the evil of actions taken by individuals? Selfish behavior outside of positions of power has less consequences. And we like to believe the best about our friends.

  7. #7 Robin Kuykendall
    March 12, 2008

    I suggest that the ideal test group for investigation of chronic power and the internalization of entitlement is Arkansas school superintendents.

    Here’s why: 1) effective, absolute control over annual personal income of around a quarter million dollars in communities where the legally generated gross county product is substantially less than that; 2) effective, absolute control of annual institutional budgest in excess of several millions of dollars; 3) absolute control of the livelihoods of hundreds of employees and their families; 4) nearly unlimited access to specialty legal counsel; 5) nearly unlimited access to local entertainment (athletics, mostly) venues, with favored seats and universally recognized celebrity status in the attending community; 6) ready access to all state and local elected & appointed officials.

    In short, the small town superintendents are all kings and kingmakers here in Arkansas. It’s bad and it’s just the way we like it.

    Robin Kuykendall

    Robin Kuykendall

  8. #8 Leo Romero
    March 13, 2008

    The current issue of Greater Good Magazine (from the Greater Good Science Center at UC Berkeley) is focused on power. Particularly pertinent to the current news is the article by Dacher Keltner, “The Power Paradox”. One quote: “Power is given to those individuals, groups, or nations who advance the interests of the greater good in socially-intelligent fashion. Yet unfortunately, having power renders many individuals as impulsive and poorly attuned to others as your garden variety frontal lobe patient, making them prone to act abusively and lose the esteem of their peers. What people want from leaders social intelligence is what is damaged by the experience of power.”

    http://greatergood.berkeley.edu/greatergood/current_issue/keltner.html

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