Study explores how power gets to the brain
Power may or may not corrupt, but it does change a person—and a new study explores just what happens in the brain as those changes occur.
In the study, neuroscientists probed what mechanisms underlie powerful people’s reduced inclination to take the perspectives of others.
They found that gaining a feeling of power over other people tends to deactivate the brain’s “motor resonance system”—a network of nerve circuits through which we internalize others’ experiences. The motor resonance system works such that, for example, if we see someone throw a ball, parts of our brain normally associated with our own action of ball-throwing become more active.
The cognitive changes in powerful-feeling people render them less able “to take the visual, cognitive, and emotional perspectives of others,” wrote the authors of the study, published in the July 1 issue of the Journal of Experimental Psychology, General.
Whether such changes lead powerful people to lose their empathy has been a subject of conflicting reports. But studies suggest that people who feel powerful tend to listen less, punish more harshly, act more hypocritically and stereotype others more.
The motor resonance system is so called because it leads our brain activity to “resonate,” in a sense, with that of others. A critical area of the brain involved in the system is the fronto-parietal region, around the top of the brain.
Neuroscientist Jeremy Hogeveen of Wilfrid Laurier University in Waterloo, Canada and colleagues recruited 45 participants for the study. The people were asked to write essays about either a time when they either remembered having power, a time when they remembered feeling powerless, or a topic of less relevance—what happened yesterday.
The exercise was designed to “prime” participants to feel powerful, helpless or neutral.
Next the participants watched videos of a right hand squeezing a ball, while they underwent a procedure called transcranial magnetic stimulation. This can be used to assess the excitability of brain regions linked to specific muscles, and thereby, the activity of the motor resonance system.
The results, the scientists wrote, “suggest a linear relationship between power and the motor resonance system, whereby increasing levels of power are associated with decreasing amounts of resonance.”
Simply put, people feeling powerful seem to be less motivated to understand what other people are going through and to make individual judgments about them, the researchers added. “The powerful often form a relatively shallow understanding of others,” they explained. The new results “support the view that rather than seek individuating information about new interaction partners, those with power tend to rely on stereotypes.”
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