This Is Your Brain on Power. Any Questions?

Full lapices

Here are some highlights from this week's On Hiring and Diversity newsletter. If you'd like to subscribe, sign up here.

This is your brain on power.

Power is to leaders what drugs are to junkies. The saying “Power is intoxicating” turns out to be literally true (and then some), according to an article by Jerry Useem in The Atlantic. When Sukhvinder Obhi, a neuroscientist at McMaster University, compared the brain scans of participants primed to feel powerful with scans of those made to feel powerless, he found that feelings of power impaired the brain’s “mirroring” process, which is a basis of human empathy, writes Mr. Useem. When we watch someone do something, the area of the brain we’d use to do that same thing normally activates in response, explains Mr. Useem, who writes about business and economics. He likens the activation to “vicarious experience” — putting yourself in another’s shoes. That’s what happened when Mr. Obhi asked powerless participants to watch a video of someone squeezing a ball — as predicted, the “neural pathways they would use to squeeze the ball themselves” lit up. When members of the group that was primed to feel powerful watched the video, however, the response in the frontal lobes of the brain was faint, Mr. Obhi found. It was as if they were “anesthetized,” Mr. Useem suggests.

The subjects were college students, so the effects of the one-day experiment were presumably short-lived. But imagine what prolonged exposure to power could do to a leader’s brain. The striking results suggest that daily doses of power might functionally alter the frontal lobes, Mr. Useem writes, much as long-term drug use does. That’s a scary thought, but one that might explain the appalling behavior of some CEOs, like Wells Fargo’s John Stumpf or Uber’s Travis Kalanick, he writes.

Mr. Obhi’s findings echo those of Dacher Keltner, a psychology professor at the University of California at Berkeley, who observed in behavioral studies over 20 years that: “Subjects under the influence of power 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.” (Not surprisingly, they’re also more apt to cheat on a partner, steal money, cheat on a test, and break traffic rules, other studies have found.)

Mr. Keltner calls this phenomenon the “power paradox” — rising to prominence usually hinges on being attuned to others, yet, after attaining power, people often lose that virtue. (Extreme hubris has other nasty side effects, too: Abusive leaders may get a “power hangover,” leaving them feeling less fulfilled, less competent, less autonomous, and more cut off, another study suggests.) And yet for every Stumpf, Kalanick, or even Donald Trump (who, before becoming president, had a reputation as one of the worst CEOs around), there’s an Indra Nooyi (CEO of Pepsi), Tim Cook (CEO of Apple), and Warren Buffett (chairman of Berkshire Hathaway), who’ve all managed to stay grounded. Leaders looking to avoid a hubris high should cultivate self-awareness, show gratitude, and share the limelight, Mr. Keltner suggests in an article in the Harvard Business Review. Here’s more advice on how to avoid a power trip.

Being a man is tough. “It is an up-at-dawn, pride-swallowing siege that I will never fully tell you about, OK?”

Last week, I noted that married women get a particularly bum rap when it comes to pay equity in the workplace, in large part because when men and women have kids, couples and employers tend to fall back on old notions about gender roles.

But women aren’t the only ones hurt by outdated gender norms. While many women rightly protest being “shunted onto a mommy track with lower wages, fewer promotions and less prestige,” many men are equally frustrated by the traditionally narrow ideas of masculinity and “the elusiveness of a daddy track,” notes an article in 1843, The Economist’s magazine. They’re just afraid to say so, because grumbling about the burdens of masculinity is considered taboo. Emily Bobrow, a writer for the magazine, takes a closer look at the pressures of modern manhood.

But men don’t get rape threats at work.

Kristina M.W. Mitchell has learned how perilous it can be to be a female professor. Recently she received an anonymous phone call “describing in explicit and vulgar detail exactly how and where the man on the phone would rape me,” she recalls in a chilling column in The Chronicle. As the head of her department’s online program, Ms. Mitchell is often the person saying no to student requests — "Can I submit late work?" "Will you round my grade up?" "Can’t you just let me take the exam again?" — which makes her a ‘bad guy’ in the eyes of some.

But bad guys don’t generally get rape threats; neither do good guys, for that matter. Female authority figures, and women who express or do something that men don’t like, however, are routinely terrorized online, over the phone, and/or in person. Being female, in fact, may be all it takes to become a target. Anonymous rape threats seem to be a preferred weapon of men who loathe women and want to silence and intimidate them.

“As a woman in academe, I am held to the same standards as my male counterparts, and yet I am also being threatened with sexual violence while I am working. Just add that to the list of things female academics must deal with, all while still teaching, publishing, and serving their departments and universities,” Ms. Mitchell writes.

Speaking of fear and loathing ...

Studies show that partisan prejudice is intensifying in the United States and has surpassed racial hostility in implicit-bias tests designed to gauge people’s subliminal feelings toward certain groups, an Upshot article by Emily Badger and Niraj Chokshi reports.

That’s striking, considering how entrenched racial attitudes are in the U.S., according to the political scientists Shanto Iyengar and Sean J. Westwood, who have studied the subject. They blame homogenous social media and residential bubbles, as well as attack ads, which have increased in number and maliciousness, for turning party affiliation into tribal animosity, Ms. Badger and Mr. Chokshi write. To be clear: This divisiveness goes beyond ideological differences; Democrats and Republicans increasingly seem to dislike each other, Mr. Iyengar and colleagues argue in a Public Opinion Quarterly paper. They point out that in 1960, a mere 5 percent of Republicans and 4 percent of Democrats said they would frown on a son's or daughter's marrying someone from the other party, but that by 2010, as many as half of Republicans and a third of Democrats would feel that way. Americans’ political bigotry extends to hiring, observed a 2015 Vox article about the paper by Mr. Iyengar and Mr. Westwood. (Conservatives say academe is overrun by liberals, but, as Russell Jacoby explains, the issue is complicated.)

A 2016 Pew Research Center study found that for the first time in a quarter-century, most Democrats and Republicans said they had “very unfavorable” views of the opposing party, characterizing each other as self-centered and a “threat” to the nation as well as an unacceptable marriage partner.

Mr. Iyengar suggests that political enmity is more socially acceptable in American society than is racial bias, which is widely condemned. Whatever the explanation, one thing is clear: Politics is getting more personal.

Short Takes

The subtle art of gaining faculty buy-in.

All it takes is finesse, strategy, and a little psychology, Lee Gardner reports (for subscribers) in The Chronicle.

When leaders are hired for talent but fired for not fitting in.

Don’t underestimate the importance of finding the right match for your organizational culture, an article in the Harvard Business Review says.

Title IX, 45 years later.

Since 1972, with the enactment of Title IX, the federal law designed to promote gender equity on campuses, the number of female head coaches and athletics directors has fallen, according to an NCAA report.

Questions, Comments?

Have a suggestion for the newsletter or a tip or story idea to share? Send it to me at gabriela.montell@chronicle. com or @GabrielaMontell.

Join the Conversation


Log In or Sign Up to leave a comment.