Being in power actually damages your brain, multiple researchers have found, producing behavioral changes resembling the results of a traumatic brain injury. Much of the change involves a lessened ability to walk a mental mile in someone else's shoes, as The Atlantic reports:
The historian Henry Adams was being metaphorical, not medical, when he described power as "a sort of tumor that ends by killing the victim's sympathies." But that's not far from where Dacher Keltner, a psychology professor at UC Berkeley, ended up after years of lab and field experiments. Subjects under the influence of power, he found in studies spanning two decades, 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.
Sukhvinder Obhi, a neuroscientist at McMaster University, in Ontario, recently described something similar. Unlike Keltner, who studies behaviors, Obhi studies brains. And when he put the heads of the powerful and the not-so-powerful under a transcranial-magnetic-stimulation machine, he found that power, in fact, impairs a specific neural process, "mirroring," that may be a cornerstone of empathy. [The Atlantic]
Keltner calls this phenomenon the "power paradox," which means functioning in a position of power leeches away the qualities of empathy and other-oriented cognition that made attaining that position possible.
The changes, it seems, are at some level physiological. In Obhi's study of the powerful's decline in mirroring behavior, he discovered that explaining mirroring and asking study participants to consciously engage in the behavior had no effect. The issue wasn't that they chose not to mirror others but that they couldn't.
Read the full story at The Atlantic here.