The Winner Effect

Exploring the neuroscience of success and failure

A New Pharaoh and the Fiscal Cliff

Democratic disagreement temper drug-like effects of power on leaders' brains.

Whatever you think of the current standoff between President Barack Obama and the Republican-led Congress over the budget, what you are witnessing is raw, messy democracy in action.

Democrats may rail against the obduracy of the Congress and Republicans howl at the intransigence of the president as they totter together above the abyss of the fiscal cliff, but for hundreds of millions of people to cooperate for the common purpose of government, such democratic "messes" are part of democracy’s package.  

Contrast this with the behavior of Egypt’s first-ever elected president, Mohamed Morsi. This week by decree he abolished the last “messy” constraint on his presidential power—the possibility of judicial review of his decisions.

This is a world leader who is widely praised for his statesmanlike actions during the recent Gaza crisis. And President Morsi is, I have no doubt, totally convinced that he is justified in overruling judicial constraints on a “temporary” basis, to lift their “messy” obstructionism in taking the Egyptian democratic process to the next stage. And doubtless he also believes that his motives are entirely honorable, particularly given his belief that Mubarak loyalists are manipulating the democratic process to subvert it.

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But what President Morsi has to realize for the sake of Egypt’s future is actually the hardest thing for any human being to appreciate—that his own brain function is being distorted by the very measures he is introducing to impose “order” on the “mess” of democracy.

The neurological effects of unconstrained power on the brain inhibit the very parts of the brain which are crucial for self-awareness—and in particular the outside surface of the frontal lobe of the brain’s right hemisphere.

Power is a drug like cocaine: both massively change brain function by increasing dopamine activity in the brain’s reward network. These dopamine increases also affect the cortex and change thinking, making people more confident, bolder—and even smarter.  

But these same changes also make people egocentric, less self-critical, less anxious and less able to detect errors and dangers. All of these conspire to make leaders impatient with the “messiness” of opposition and contradictory opinions.

No one is immune to these neurological effects of power. Without democratic controls—a free press, independent judiciary and other checks and balances—every U.S. president from Barack Obama to Abraham Lincoln would very likely start to behave like the dictator that President Morsi is at risk of becoming. The term “benevolent dictator,” in other words, is an oxymoron.

It is the neurologically-created conceit of many powerful leaders that—in the words of the all-powerful French President Charles de Gaulle—“après moi le déluge” (after me, the flood). Power fosters the delusion of indispensability and many political leaders and CEO’s of great multinationals have created havoc in fighting to stay in post because they genuinely believe their abilities are crucial for the survival of their country or corporation.

But noone is indispensable and if any of us find ourselves believing that, then we should reflect on the possibility that we may be suffering from a condition, which David Owen, the former UK Foreign Secretary, has called ‘The Hubris Syndrome.” And he and a colleague, Jonathon Davidson, have even developed a proposed set of  diagnostic criteria for this disorder, which include the following[i]:

  • Excessive confidence in the individual's own judgment and contempt for the advice or criticism of others.          
  • A belief that rather than being accountable to the mundane court of colleagues or public opinion, the court to which they answer is: History or God;
  • An unshakable belief that in that court they will be vindicated;                       
  • A tendency to allow their "broad vision," about the moral rectitude of a proposed course, to obviate the need to consider practicality, cost or outcomes;
  • Hubristic incompetence, where things go wrong because too much self-confidence has led the leader not to worry about the nuts and bolts of policy.           

If President Morsi is successful in over-ruling democratic and constitutional constraints on his behavior we should, according to Owen and Davidson, look out for him developing the following further symptoms:

  • A narcissistic propensity to see their world primarily as an arena in which to exercise power and seek glory.
  • A predisposition to take actions which seem likely to cast the individual in a good light—i.e. in order to enhance image.
  • A disproportionate concern with image and presentation.         
  • A messianic manner of talking about current activities and a tendency to exaltation.
  • An identification with the nation, or organization to the extent that the individual regards his/her outlook and interests as identical. 
  • A tendency to speak in the third person or use the royal "we."

The neurological effect of power on the brains of leaders is one of the great threats to world peace. Dictatorships frequently go to war, democracies much more rarely. This is in considerable part due to the fact that the unconstrained power that dictators and their acolytes hold, distort their judgment, sense of caution and values so much that war can seem like a useful and even desirable option in their lust for more power.

So let us hope that the infant of Egyptian democracy is not smothered by this threatened neurological condition, and let us be grateful that we live in countries where politicians drive us mad with their "messy" disagreements.

twitter: @ihrobertson

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[i] Owen, D and Davidson, J (2009) Brain, 132, 1396.

Ian Robertson, Ph.D., the author of The Winner Effect, holds the Chair in Psychology at Trinity College Dublin.

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