How Power affects the Human Brain

September 9, 2016 - 6 minutes read

Power can do weird things to your perception of yourself and people around you. Have you noticed a peer change in behaviour after being promoted or moved to a position of power? We’ve tried to understand this change; this change of how a well balanced, empathetic person can change so drastically in their behaviour once they assume positions of power. The change may not be deliberate but incidental. Here’s a look at how and why power can change people, for better or for worse.


More power equals lower stress

One would normally assume that people in positions of power have to deal with higher levels of stress than their counterparts in lower positions. The 2012 study by Stanford psychologist James Gross and a Harvard team found that a higher rank was associated with less anxiety and lower levels of the stress hormone.

The findings of the study are backed up by other studies like the Whitehall study and measurements made by Stanford biology professor Robert Sapolsky. The Whitehall study of health in British civil service found lower morbidity and mortality rates in higher ranking officials. The Sapolsky measurements of the stress hormone, cortisol, in baboons, found lower hormone levels in high-ranking troop members.

Power gives you an illusion of control

Experiments by Nathanael Fast and Deborah Gruenfeld of Stanford University found that power can lead to illusions of control over outcomes that are beyond the power holders reach. You could compare it to a gambler who believes that he can control the role of the dice. Perceived illusions of control can result in rash decisions that can have unfavourable outcomes. More dramatic illusions of control can be attributed to bankers and financiers who bet on massive complex financial systems.

On the plus side, however, the results of the experiment showed higher levels of optimism, self-esteem and action orientation in high-power individuals.

Power can make you egocentric

Research by Adam Galinsky and colleagues of Northwestern University found a co-relation between power and egocentric behaviour. The experiment involved priming subjects with different levels of power and then asking them to write the letter ‘E’ on their forehead. High-power individuals were more likely to draw the letter ‘E’ from their point of view which appeared mirror reversed to someone standing opposite to them while low-power individuals conformed to the observers point of view.

Power makes you less empathetic

Further experiments by Galinsky and his team found diminished empathy in high-power individuals. Reactions of participants to different pictures depicting angry, surprised and neutral faces were measured. High-power participants made more errors in judging the emotional expressions of others than were baseline participants who had not been primed. This reduced perspective-taking might be a way for people in power to adapt to higher responsibilities.

Tendency to objectify others

Experiments by Deborah Greenfield and colleagues found that high-power individuals were more likely to contact others when they needed something from them. They found a recurring tendency where people, like objects, are treated as a means to an end.

Power might turn you into a bully

A study by Nathanael J Fast and Serena Chen found increased tendency for aggression and bullying among the powerful.

A startling 37% of American workers—roughly 54 million people—have been bullied at work, primarily having been sabotaged, yelled at, or belittled by their bosses (Workplace Bullying Institute & Zogby International, 2007)

The study showed that power makes bullies of people who feel inadequate in their role as a boss. Power has the ability to enhance and strengthen the capacity of individuals who can skilfully interact with and alter their work environment. But some people who have worked in less powerful roles perceive themselves incompetent to handle their role and lash out at colleagues, an aggression driven by an ego threat.

Power Increases infidelity among men and women

A 2011 study led by Joris Lammers at Tilburg University in Netherlands found that people with a high need for power are more likely to be sexually promiscuous. they surveyed 1,561 professionals asking them how high up they were in their organisation and their history or interest in cheating. the found relationship between power and infidelity to be identical between men and women.

“Results showed that elevated power is positively associated with infidelity because power increases confidence in the ability to attract partners. This association was found for both actual infidelity and intentions to engage in infidelity in the future” writes the study.

Most of these studies relied on memories of low-grade power in artificial experiments. It is debatable how results can vary when applied to real world scenarios. The effects of long-term large scale power over thousands of people still remains largely unknown. It ultimately depends on the person who is in the position of power and his individual personality traits which will decide if power corrupts or purifies.

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