Power Doesn’t Cause Brain Damage

By Neuroskeptic | May 28, 2018 12:44 pm


An Atlantic article from July 2017 has been widely discussed on Twitter over the past few days. It’s called Power Causes Brain Damage and I remember that it was fairly popular at the time of publication. Its recent revival was prompted I think by Harvey Weinstein’s arrest and more generally the abuses of power revealed by the #MeToo movement. The article itself, of course, dating to the pre-Fall of Weinstein era, isn’t specifically about this.

In my view, while power is certainly all too often abused, this article has very little to tell us about Weinstein, his fellow offenders, or other powerful people.

The piece, by Jerry Useem, centers around research on ‘power priming‘. In power priming experiments, participants (usually students) perform a task which is supposed to create a, perhaps unconscious, ‘feeling of power’. A typical method is to get them to write an essay recounting a past incident in which they held power.

Power-primed people, according to several studies, are prone to antisocial and egocentric behaviour:

Subjects under the influence of power, [researcher Dacher Keltner] 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…

Power priming even ‘anaesthetized’ the subconcious tendency to ‘mirror’ the observed actions of another person:

When we watch someone perform an action, the part of the brain we would use to do that same thing lights up in sympathetic response. It might be best understood as vicarious experience. It’s what [Sukhvinder Obhi] and his team were trying to activate when they had their subjects watch a video of someone’s hand squeezing a rubber ball.

For nonpowerful participants, mirroring worked fine: The neural pathways they would use to squeeze the ball themselves fired strongly. But the powerful group’s? Less so.

The piece concludes with a mention of David Owen’s notion of ‘hubris syndrome’ as proposed in his book In Sickness and in Power, which I reviewed in one of my earliest posts. I said the book “mixes sound history with fluffy speculation seemingly at random.”


So, there’s a few issues here. The low-hanging fruit for a critic of this article is that “Brain Damage” title. It’s a clickbait headline if ever I saw one. Authors don’t always write the headlines, so we shouldn’t blame Useem for this, but the title really is ‘brain-damagingly’ bad.

There is absolutely no evidence that power causes brain damage – all of the studies discussed in the article are about behavioral changes lasting minutes or an hour or so at most. Sure, we can speculate that these power-priming effects might become chronic in people with long-term power. But we could equally well predict that the effects would vanish once someone gets accustomed to feeling powerful.dreams

Beyond the headline, the meat of Useem’s article is about power priming. Now, this is indeed an interesting and well-cited research literature. However, the article doesn’t mention that there is a major controversy within psychology over the validity of the entire field of priming studies like this, which are often grouped together as ‘social priming’.

Social priming has seen endless failed replications in the past few years, as regular readers will know. In terms of power priming specifically, there was a high-profile failure to replicate a power priming result in early 2017 and another earlier this year.

This aside, I’m not sure these power priming studies tell us much about the real world. Power priming is a psychology lab tool which is all about the feeling of power. In a lab context, that’s fine, but in the real world, the behavior of the powerful is influenced by something much harder to study in the lab: the reality of power.

Consider Harvey Weinstein. He didn’t just have a feeling of power, he actually had enormous power and influence over people’s lives and careers. This reality of power allowed him to do what he (‘allegedly’) did. I suspect that if you gave 100 random men a Weinstein level of power, a high proportion of them would abuse it – not because the sense of power made them less empathetic to their victims, but because the power let them get away with it. I don’t have experiments to prove this, because those experiments would be unethical – although see the Zimbardo study.

Overall, I don’t think power causes brain damage and I don’t think psychology lab experiments tell us much about the abuses of power in the real world (which is not to say they’re not interesting as research tools.)

  • Trut Tella

    “I don’t have experiments to prove this, because those experiments would be unethical”

    Have we found a worthwhile use for sexbots, then?

    • Vince

      It’s basically the plot of Westworld…

  • Erik Bosma

    It’s the other way around: brain damage causes the need for power.

  • jonathanpulliam

    Disgraced former Brazil President Lula Ignacio da Silva went “power-mad” during his tenure. Today he is in prison.

    President Trump is reported by the New York Times to consume copious amounts of diet soda containing aspartame, whose metabolic by-products after human consumption include brain-cell toxic wood alcohol and brain cell toxic toxic formaldehyde. The toxic soup Trump marinates his pea-brain 20/7 is indeed causing observable evidence of brain damage. Trump has the Insomnia. Trump has the confusion. (covfefe?) Trump has the incapacity to finish a complete sentence and his closest associates and most powerful appointees have called him moronic and stupid, both of which could be the result of Trump’s self-inflicted brain damage.

    • Hodgly

      Okay, this is a pet peeve of mine: yes, those things are metabolic byproducts of aspartame, but the same is true of apple juice, in similar quantaties. Likewise, if its supposedly exitotoxic byproducts actually reached the brain instead of being metabolized by MAO in the stomache, it wouldn’t be a subtle thing, because a shot of Coke Zero would have the subjective effects of a hit of meth. There is a warning label for people who cannot metabolize it, because in such people, there is danger of a hypertensive crisis, the much more immediate danger of accidentally ingesting massive quantaties of powerful stimulants.

  • Hodgly

    I found this looking for the article in question to share, albeit jokingly.

    You haven’t convinced me not to do so. All you’ve really argued is that there is no necessary connection between the lab experiments and actual abuse of power.

    Unfortunately, this is true of prettymuch every experiment in psychology I have encountered and the actual phenomenon in question, unless that phenomenon happens to scale particularly well to the experimental tools available to psychologists.

    It’s a great argument for the practical limitations of the discipline, but journalists, who are members of a different discipline with different standards of truth, can and should attempt to find connections between this sort of experiment and larger scale behaviour. Otherwise, frankly, psychology is too limited to have much value. There’s a certain irony there, because psychologists should nevertheless adopt an attitude such as yours, minding the limits of the tools they have available and the scope of the claims they make on the basis of the experiments those tools allow.

    To me, the most notable thing about the article is that a fairly conservative publication like the Atlantic was willing to draw a conclusion so critical of the rich and powerful.



No brain. No gain.

About Neuroskeptic

Neuroskeptic is a British neuroscientist who takes a skeptical look at his own field, and beyond. His blog offers a look at the latest developments in neuroscience, psychiatry and psychology through a critical lens.


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