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Power on the brain

Professor Ian Robertson
It gives pleasure to some and inspires fear in others ‒ and it’s all down to hormones and chemicals. What happens when power goes to your head?

First the good news: power can make you smarter, bolder, more goal-focused and strategic in your thinking ‒ and less anxious. Now for the bad news: power can make you narcissistic, risk-blind, unempathic, prone to sexually harass or bully underlings, disinhibited and hypocritical. Men and women both respond to power in similar ‒ but not identical ‒ ways. So how does power have such…powerful effects?

Let’s start with a definition: power means having control over things that other people want, need or fear. So every supervisor, every doctor, every care assistant and every ticket office clerk has power, to varying degrees.

Power increases testosterone levels in both men and women, and this in turn ramps up activity in the brain’s reward network, giving a boost to an important chemical messenger in the brain ‒ dopamine. Dopamine also affects the frontal lobes, crucial decision-making, strategy-formation parts of the brain, which is why power can make you smarter. It can also make you feel more upbeat and less anxious.

Getting the balance right

As with many of the brain’s chemical messengers, dopamine activity is a double-edged sword: too little makes you under-function while too much has the same effect. There is a ‘just right’ Goldilocks zone of dopamine activity. This is why some people really ‘grow into’ power ‒ cometh the hour, cometh the woman sort of thing ‒ while others appear to have their judgment, emotions and behaviour unbalanced by it.

But people have different appetites for power. Some of us are most motivated by wanting to be liked and accepted by others (‘affiliation need’), others by wanting to be recognised for our achievements (‘achievement need’) and some by a desire for power (‘power need’). These are largely unconscious drives unless we really work at self-analysis, but certainly your underlings will know whether you have a high need for power or not.

People with a high need for power hate losing; it makes their bodies secrete the stress hormone cortisol. Conversely, winning makes them feel very good and sends their testosterone levels surging.

Low-need-for-power people get stressed by winning, and their cortisol levels go up when they’re at the front of the pack. Such people probably lack the killer instinct and may not make the best bosses, from the company’s point of view.

High-need-for-power men and women have sex more often than low-need-for-power ones do, which reflects the power-sex linkage in the brain’s reward network. So Henry Kissinger was spot-on when he said that power is an aphrodisiac.

But while men and women show a lot of overlap in their response to power, there is one important difference.

Using power for good

Need for power can be divided into the ego-driven ‘p-power’, which is the raw selfish pleasure of power. There is a sister motivation called ‘s-power’, which is more about desiring power to create a common good for the group. Every person with a healthy appetite for power has a p-element to their drive, but people vary in the degree to which they are also motivated by the s-power.

Women, it turns out, tend to have higher levels of s-power on average, and this is very important because s-power dampens the raw testosterone response and therefore makes it somewhat less likely that the damaging, sometimes quasi-addictive effects will take hold of women.

The power we hold and the power others hold over us are probably the biggest shapers of our lives and destinies. That’s why it is so important to understand them at home, in work and in politics. Twitter @ihrobertson. Image credit CC Bob Mical.

some people really ‘grow into’ power ‒ cometh the hour, cometh the woman sort of thing ‒ while others appear to have their judgment, emotions and behaviour unbalanced by it



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