So says an article reporting on 2 decades of research by various professionals in psychology and neuroscience in the current issue of Atlantic (July/August 2017). If power were a prescription drug, it would come with a long list of side effects. It can intoxicate. It can corrupt. It can even make Henry Kissinger believe that he is sexually magnetic. Now new research, according to the article’s author, Jerry Useem, seems to confirm that people who have been under their influence of power 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.
The article got me thinking about office-seekers from both parties with whom I interacted on the campaign trail when I was running for office or with whom I have met since for interviews over the past 25 years plus. I did see a transformation with some of the successful candidates from being a “nice person” to becoming gargoyled! I figuratively thought that they let power go to their heads. Little did I know that transcranial magnetic-stimulation machines used in studies found that power was impairing a specific neural process that makes a person empathetic. The irony is that the “good-guyness” and empathy that got them elected on a platform of being “one of us” made them lose the capacity for empathy once they gained the power.
By now , you think I am joshing you. I’m not. Upon reflection you might also agree that there are numerous examples of executive hubris. At a minimum the research claims that the powerful become less nuanced on reading people. The longer that they are in office the less empathetic they become. Their staff “mirrors” their hubris since they are afraid of losing their jobs so they laugh when the executive laughs and rail when he/she” complains. This has the effect of confirming the off-kilter perspective of the power-player.
I use to wonder how politicians could be so stupid, committing crimes and thinking that they were immune to prosecution. You don’t have to walk down memory lane very far to see how a recently jailed politician from Bristol stole from his good friend’s estate and took money from a disabled client’s trust. He created a “special grant” and paid himself from it for doing nothing to earn it. Another went off to federal prison for using his campaign funds as a personal piggy bank. Right now a few investigations are open on politicians doing the same thing with campaign funds. I am not trying to create a new “defense” for these folks, but only to point out the need for “public servants” to stop overdosing on their perception of themselves as such big shots.
Power makes folks do strange things and not see the problem. Nary much time goes by before a story documents receipt of campaign contributions that should have made the recipient blush. You can fill in the blanks about whom I am talking. Governor Chris Christie’s plopping himself on a beach closed to his constituents was a prime example of power blindness.
For politicians who are reading this column it would be worthwhile to stop FEELING powerful by remembering a time when you didn’t feel so. Recalling experiences of when you weren’t powerful can keep you grounded and empathetic toward the people you are supposed to be serving. Time for a check-up!
Arlene Violet is an attorney and former Rhode Island Attorney General.