Prolonged feelings of power can damage the brain

How many times have you heard the quote?

Absolute power corrupts absolutely

19th century British politician Lord Acton.

During my schooling I was taught that people who have little or no ethical or moral compass, who are so ego driven they are not able to see other’s positions or have no empathy for others had a “personality problem”.   There’s new research that shows “personality” may not be the whole “problem”.

Researchers have found that Chief Executive Officers (CEOs) and other leaders may suffer damage to their brain as a result of their rise to power.

“Brain activity of CEOs changes as they climb the career ladder, causes them to lose the ability to empathize.”

Meowie, Chief Executive Cat by Peggy

“The damage results in the loss of the ability to read other people’s emotions, which could explain why people who achieve great power lose their ability to feel empathy for the less powerful.”

“Researchers at McMaster University in Ontario, Canada, made the finding using transcranial magnetic stimulation (TMS) – a technique that uses magnetic fields to stimulate nerve cells in specific regions of the brain.  This showed that the areas of the brain that deal with empathy were significantly less responsive in people in power.”

“The results are down to the brain’s neuroplasticity – an ability that allows the mind to rewire itself in response to experiences.”

“The researchers, led by Dr. Sukhvinder Obhi, said: “Many people who have witnessed a colleague get promoted to an executive level have probably seen some changes in their behaviour, and not always for the better.  Our current work aims to integrate previous work from social psychology with the techniques and methods of cognitive neuroscience to gain a better understanding of exactly how power affects the brain and social functioning in a variety of environments.”

The good news is people who wield power, who want to avoid this brain damage, can take positive steps, according to experts.

Steps that include keeping people around who have the power to call you out on bad behaviour, rewarding honesty while discouraging flattery, and maintaining social connections.

Earmark this post for the next time you find yourself in a position of power.  Wouldn’t want your brain to be damaged!

Read the full article here:



15 comments on “Prolonged feelings of power can damage the brain

  1. Very interesting findings, but I hope no one uses this as the Twinkie excuse for being awful people. “Gosh, darn, my brain duped me. On the way to becoming powerful, I had to lose my connection to human decency. I just couldn’t help myself.” There are plenty of powerful people who use their strengths for good.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Sharon,
      Right you are!! Maybe we need CEOs to show that can still be empathetic before, say, they take over another company. Or become incorporated. Did you know that initially companies had to be doing public good to become corporations?
      I wonder what we can learn from those with poser who manage to maintain empathy for others.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Well what a very fascinating post. I had no idea about this correlation between power and brain damage. We need only look to the current “president” of the United States to see that this is absolutely true. On the other hand he was clearly mentally ill from the start, but the fact that he now has the most powerful position in the world has really continued to destroy whatever might have been sane there in the first place.

    I think it is very true that power changes people. And that people in positions of power can often lack humility or empathy. Much depends on their own personal history and what kind of person they were to begin with. Take for example, my hero Nelson Mandela who was able to use power to improve the lives of many and to start a process of healing and recovery.


    Liked by 1 person

    • Peta,
      I agree that much depends on the person. There is one line of thought that power or success magnifies who you are. So if you are mean, you become meaner, if you are kind you become more kind.


    • Linda,
      Do you think it is linked to who is attracted to the job? I wonder also if it depends on the attitude of those higher in the chain of command. I know when I worked for a large corporation, the attitude of those anchorage tricked down!


  3. Very interesting. I think maybe this is why some principals in schools forget what it was like to be a teacher. By the way, University of McMaster in Hamilton, ON is in Canada, not the United States.


    • Mama Carol,
      Thanks for the correction! – it was a direct cut ‘n paste from the article and I certainly didn’t catch the obvious either. I changed it on the post.

      I agree with you that people who move into positions of authority do forget. I once was a teacher who became an administrator and it’s easy to forget the intricacies of the past and focus on the challenges of the present. It’s tricky to old onto our past while executing the present and knowing that the brain actually shifts and adjusts was both surprising and enlightening to me.

      Liked by 1 person

      • My last administrator and now friend tried very hard to never forget her roots. She was pretty successful but I’m sure some people who pushed the envelope might not agree with me. For the most part she was very fair and only used her authority when she absolutely needed to.


        • Mama Carol,
          My experience is that the more secure the person is the less they need to wield and prove their authority. People who are insecure often hide it by throwing their weight around, micro-managing etc. Which makes me wonder even more what is going on in the brains of secure people versus the insecure. Research already is clear that early stress/neglect/trauma changes the developing brain. It’s fascinating to me and Peggy and one of the reasons we decided to do this blog.

          P.S. It’s a freghtening thought of what is happening with the brains of millions of children growing up in war zones.

          Liked by 1 person

        • Mama C.
          You’re welcome.
          It takes a lot of the sting out to understand that people who are authoritarian, arrogant and intolerant are insecure people. There is almost always a direct ratio of outward displays of power to inward insecurity and fear.

          Liked by 1 person

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