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This is Your Brain on Power

August 1, 2019

 

 

Warning: it can cause symptoms similar to brain trauma, including increased impulsivity, decreased awareness of risk, and, perhaps most alarmingly, an impaired ability to see things from other people’s point of view. Are we talking about the results of some new psychiatric drug? No. We’re talking about that hazardous condition known as “being in charge.”


Those are the findings from a variety of experiments running over 20 years conducted UC Berkeley psychology professor Dacher Keltner, reports Jerry Useem in a 2017 issue of The Atlantic, and it’s disconcerting news for anyone at the mercy of a leader in their life, which is to say: pretty much everyone.

 

Ask people what qualities they most wish to see in a leader, and one of the top answers will be empathy. In an unimpaired person, the instinctive understanding of how another feels seems to start as early as six months. A new study conducted at the Ben-Gurion University of the Negev and Hebrew University in Israel found that six-month-olds shown a video of a circle bullying a square subsequently showed a preference for a square figure over a circle, while babies shown a video of a circle and a square getting along had no such preference.

 

However, it appears that people experiencing power are less likely to automatically sympathize with that beleaguered square and put themselves in its angular shoes. They do not exhibit as much mirroring behavior. That is, they feel less of a drive to laugh when others are laughing or smile when others are smiling.

 

Useem cites Princeton psychology professor Susan Fiske, who posits that these supposed deficits are a natural reaction to having sustained leverage over the people around you. When you don’t need to set others at ease in order to retain access to resources, those muscles are bound to get a little flabby. When you are required to make big decisions, you want to be able to screen out unimportant information.

 

However, in this particular day and age, the problems our leaders must confront are so nuanced and complex, one could argue that an inability or unwillingness to take in other perspectives functions almost entirely as a handicap. It is increasingly difficult to be an expert in every field. Even for a someone who considers themselves to be a “renaissance man” (or woman, or person), the fact is: we are no longer in the renaissance. There is much more information to comb through, these days, and that all but requires us to take into account the learnings of others.

 

So remember, if you find yourself wielding power, seek out those who will make sure you don’t get too big for your britches. At least try to hold onto the empathy of a baby. Your underlings will thank you.

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