"Long before it's in the papers"
July 04, 2013


Study explores how power gets to the brain

July 4, 2013
Special to World Science  

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 es­said 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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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 new 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 “resonates” 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 essaid 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, compared to the less powerless,” 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.”