Powerful thoughts

Recent studies on power help explain current societal woes, writes Prof. William Reville

Having power over others is defined as controlling resources that the others want, need or fear. Does having power over others affect the brain of the powerful one, and does being in another’s power affect the brain of the powerless? In both cases the answer is yes. The results of psychological research in this area are reviewed by Ian Robertson, Professor of Psychology at TCD in a very interesting article in The Psychologist, Vol.126, No. 3, March 2013.

For example, experiments were carried out at Radboud University in Holland in which volunteer participants were assigned to be either a ‘superior’ or a ‘subordinate’ in a computer-based task.  Members of the superior group directed members of the subordinate group in carrying out the task and evaluated them. The evaluation results determined how much the subordinates were paid for participating in the study. All the superiors received the same fixed fee.

In this experiment the members of the superior group experienced power and subordinates experienced feelings of powerlessness. They were then tested for cognitive function (ability to focus and to work with multiple streams of information in mind and revise plans as necessary) and the subordinates scored significantly worse than the superiors. Power, or the lack of it, markedly affects this most high-end and characteristic level of human functioning.

Physical pose

Even such a simple thing as briefly adopting a powerful or a powerless physical pose has a marked effect on the way we think. In one study some participants were asked to adopt an expansive ‘powerful’ pose – leaning back in a chair with feet up on a table. They were told this pose was necessary in order to record accurate physiological measurements. Other participants were asked to take a contracted ‘low power’ pose – stand with bowed head and with arms folded tightly across the chest. The poses were held for one minute, after which the study participants were tested. The people who adopted the powerful pose rated themselves as significantly more ‘in charge’ and powerful than those who took the low power pose.


These findings satisfy our intuition that powerful poses might well induce powerful feelings. However, what is even more striking is that the more powerful feelings in the ‘powerful’ pose participants were paralleled by significant increases in testosterone levels and the low-power poses correlated with decreased testosterone levels. And, furthermore, the induced feelings of power also correlated with decreased levels of the stress hormone cortisol and the induced feelings of powerlessness correlated with increased levels of cortisol.

The consequences of feeling powerful are by no means all positive. Studies show that even small increases in experimentally induced feelings of power increase hypocrisy, egocentricity and moral exceptionalism, and decrease feelings of empathy for others. Ian Robertson describes a particularly interesting and topical example of the negative effects of feeling powerful. Committed gamblers feel that they can exert some control over events that are in fact randomly determined, e.g. the roll of a dice.


Experiments have shown that even tiny elevations of experienced power markedly increase the susceptibility to this illusion. High level banking involves a significant element of gambling in the global financial markets and such bankers are all powerful people. One has to wonder how big a part this combination of power and gambling played in spurring the reckless risks taken during the recent financial bubble, leading to the near collapse of global capitalism and the devastation of so many peoples’ personal finances.

Several studies have shown that increased feelings of power tend to reduce empathic feelings towards others. When our feelings of power are aroused, we tend to view other people more and more in terms of how useful they can be to us rather than in the quality of the personal relations we have with them.

Power can also bring out the bully in us. This is an interesting consequence of the Peter Principle. The Peter Principle says that in every hierarchical organisation a person tends to rise to the level of his/her incompetence. A person in a powerful senior position has to work under the close scrutiny of his/her subordinates and, if he/she is not up to the job, this causes significant stress. People who feel inadequate in the role of boss are tempted to cope with this stress by bullying subordinates. On the other hand, power tends to smarten and to energise senior people who feel up to the job.


Henry Kissinger is often quoted as saying that ‘power is the ultimate aphrodisiac’ and studies bear this out. People with higher levels of power have sexual intercourse more often than lower-power people and are more likely to be unfaithful in their relationships because power increases their confidence in their ability to attract partners.

We are not all equally interested in achieving power; some of us are much more motivated than others.  This degree of motivation can be assessed by analysing images in short stories written in response to emotionally ambiguous drawings. Research has shown that in competitive game situations, people with a high-power need react to winning with significant drops in levels of the stress hormone cortisol, while losing causes a rise in cortisol. Losing causes much less stress in low-power-need individuals but, very tellingly, winning causes cortisol levels to rise. For low-power-need people victory is stressful and such people may unconsciously sabotage their performance in competition in order to lower the possibility of a stressful win.

The knowledge uncovered by the research described by Ian Robertson has very important practical consequences in our lives. For example, a huge study led by Michael Marmot, called the Whitehall study, published in The Lancet in 1991, showed that health prospects and outcomes in the British civil service are highly correlated with seniority in the hierarchical civil service scale. This outcome is surely affected by relative feelings of power and powerlessness. And I already described the probable exacerbating effects of feelings of power on the gambling aspects of high finance, the relationship of power to bullying, lack of empathy, promiscuity and the connection between powerlessness and underachievement. There is plenty of scope for counteracting these various negative effects through general public health education and by incorporating appropriate counselling into management and staff training courses at work.

And finally, a widespread application of the wisdom of Christianity, that exhorts the powerful to be humble and the powerless to have confidence, would go a long way towards sorting out problems that flow from the way power affects the brain.

William Reville is an Emeritus Professor of Biochemistry at UCC. www.understandingscience.ucc.ie