You’ve heard the warning not to let power go to your head. That’s exactly where it causes trouble! As it turns out, power has several negative effects on your brain.
The climb to power is innocent. Studies of college students, politicians, military, and yes, corporate-types all share the same findings. Those who make their way to the top of the ladder are the ones who are sociable, considerate, reasonably agreeable, and generally nice. They gain the respect of their peers at each rung because we tend to give respect to those we like, which means we’re responsible for moving the cool kids up.
And that’s where the problems start.
Once in a position of power, we tend to turn into asshats – the very ones we hated when we were underlings. Generally, we become the opposite of the “nice” people we were – we’re often rude, greedy, impulsive, we make bad decisions, and we ignore people beneath us.
Power actually produces changes in the brain that create this behavior:
- The orbitofrontal cortex (OFC) helps us with visual cues, making responsible decisions, and inhibiting inappropriate behavior. For some reason, power goes hand-in-hand with higher levels of testosterone. And higher testosterone levels seem to go hand-in-hand with decreased OFC activity. That means more stereotyping, more impulsive behavior, and more bad decisions, like using and schmoozing.
- Powerful people tend to be under more stress. Stress reduces the production of serotonin, which would usually restrict production of testosterone, which is now running amok. In other words, without our bliss, we get cranky and take it out on others. We get aggressive, argumentative, and often inappropriate.
- Rats (often used in neurobiological research because their brains are so similar to ours) who end up in a position of power can develop about a third more neurons in their hippocampus. That’s the area mostly responsible for memory and learning. The average lifespan of cells in this area is about a week, but in “power rats” the cells live longer. These rats believe they know it all! The problem is, the more “expert” we think we are, the less we rely on observation and critical thinking. We rely more on mental shortcuts so we lose objectivity and clarity in our perceptions. This makes it very convenient for us to ignore any facts that don’t fit our beliefs (and those who dare to disagree with us)!
Takeaway: leaders beware – you probably aren’t making the best decisions. Do what you can to keep your mental balance and maintain all the behaviors that got you to the top. Play nice and be sure to balance your position with plenty of honest feedback from others.