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Peter Riva

View from the Edge

Peter Riva of Gila has offered his many years of columns for this online newspaper. His writings have been published in East Coast newspapers, and he decided to share them with me and you, our readers.

Biological Effects of Power.

By Peter Riva

Date: Sept. 13, 2012
Biological Effects of Power.
What is power really? It has been defined as the control over things that other people want or fear. But how does it work on the brain? Research into the brain reveals that power performs a hardware upgrade of sorts. It seems to help you, when analyzing or thinking, to see the wood for the trees. Power acts on the brain functions so that the large issues do not overwhelm the thinking process because you still maintain a firm grasp on the small. Neither the trees nor the forest threaten those experiencing power.


The truth is power affects the dopamine influenced part of the brain, making you feel better, happier and increases testosterone levels (according to Stanford University studies). Power affects the deep part of the brain where your reward centers are, the ones that make you feel good when you get a pay hike or that you have gotten pregnant or you have made your wife pregnant, or where you feel good because of sexual activity.


Stress can erode the feeling of power; it has the opposite effects to power. It reduces cognitive function, makes you worry and makes you pessimistic. Meanwhile, unstressed power can make you optimistic that you can achieve goals and put aside doubts. This is leadership at its best. We evolved as a group species and we need good leaders to survive. Power can therefore be a good thing, when balanced with less stress and good common sense. But power can corrupt, especially when common sense is not present or when stress overwhelms.


According to researchers in the US and UK, the signs of this corruption of power are now considered easy to spot: Does the one in power abuse underlings, or does he or she seek to shock or dismay underlings, or does he begin to evaluate people only as useful tools to themselves, or do they get tunnel vision (mono focus),or did sex begin to be their affirmation of power, or do they begin to apply different standards to themselves than to others around them, or do they make jokes that are not really funny or are slightly abusive?


Lord Acton said, “Power tends to corrupt and absolute power tends to corrupt absolutely.” But what he really meant was that bad men, corrupt men, exercise influence, not authority. Authority comes with power. The trick is not to allow that authority to be administered by influence or be corrupted by influence. What we need in our leaders is authority, not merely those who will wield influence. While we need leaders who have a need for the feeling of power (otherwise they would not run) power-induced dopamine works on the same centers of the brain as cocaine – and like cocaine it can become addictive.


What’s the brain function between corrupt and not corrupt? The levels of dopamine, according to Prof. Ian Roberson (Prof. and Director of Trinity College Institute of Neuroscience). If they drop too low, you see either a tendency to resign or fail. If the dopamine levels get too high then the leader can begin to believe himself god-like and change constitutional controls to remain in office – the goal is to remain in power to feel good – to keep dopamine levels high. The problem with that is that when dopamine levels get that high, the brain’s functions of reasoning become unbalanced and you get the likes of Gaddafi, Mugabe and Saddam Hussein.


Elections, free press and active judiciary were invented specifically to combat this hitherto perceived need in some to drive for power. What our forefathers didn’t know is that they were practicing good neuroscience when they wrote the Constitution.


However, leaders in industry – especially in banking and Wall Street – have no such effective checks and balances and their addictive failings to the needs of power, the craving of power, often has lead to drastic consequences for us all. Regulators’ effectiveness need to be strengthened, as do corporate boards, not because we do not want powerful corporate leaders, but because we do not want corrupt, dopamine-addicted corporate leaders.


And when we go to the polls to elect our leaders shortly, it could be a good idea to evaluate the dopamine-addiction signs of our leaders and wanna-be leaders as well.

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