Large numbers of citizens have come forward in recent weeks offering themselves as being fit to take part in our political process.
What prompted them to do so? Some did it because they had a strong sense of civic responsibility. Others did because they saw local government as a way of advancing their career ambitions or accessing wealth or power. Yet others had motivations that were mixed. Some may even have had criminal intent.
We can be sure that many had no idea why they were volunteering since their motives were hidden even from themselves. Unknown to them, there might be a bully hidden inside their breast, or more likely, their chests.
It is often said that power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely. Philosopher Bertrand Russell, however, reminds us that power is needed to do good as well as evil. Russell argues that power is the fundamental stuff of human relationships and that power not only changes relationships; it transforms people.
I have recently been reading an interesting book, The Winner Effect, by the English neuroscientist Ian Robertson, and believe that readers of this column might find it useful as they try to understand the seemingly crazy antics of our politicians and our would-be politicians.
Robertson advises that “everyone who has any power should ask themselves from time to time: Is power going to my head? Ambition is a great thing, but ask a friend or partner about patterns of behaviour. What do they think your power motivations are? This is a deep-seated part of our personality that we are mostly unaware of, and so we usually have to ask other people who live and work with us if we want to get an accurate picture.
“Auditing our need for power should include asking ourselves whether our ego-driven power is counterbalanced by high levels of altruistic power and ultimately corrupted by it. It will also make it more likely that our closest relationships will break up and will leave us vulnerable to a number of personal problems, including alcohol and substance abuse. And if we feel inadequate to the demands of our powerful position, we run the risk of displaying aggression and even bullying behaviour towards our underlings.”
It is widely assumed we are either born to win or born to lose. Our author, however, challenges that assumption. “Genes are not our destiny.” He rejects notions of genetic fatalism. Success does not always pass through on to generations. The key factor which affects personality and behaviour is the brain with its various networks and the hormones that flow through it.
Robertson tells us that testosterone changes the brain because it alters its chemistry. It boosts levels of the neurotransmitter dopamine. Dopamine is a key element in motivation— in getting clear in our minds what we want, and setting out to get it.
Winning changes how we feel and think by racking up testosterone and the dopamine-sensitive brain systems responsible for an action oriented approach. Power, then, primes the brain into an action mode which helps us to focus on setting goals for ourselves and achieving them—it puts us into a positive mode of thinking where we are oriented towards solving problems rather than worrying about what might go wrong.
“Success means that leaders constantly experience further boosts in testosterone, giving rise to the powerful spiral of the winner effect.”
One’s belief system changes behaviour. The stereotypes which are embedded in our brain affects our behaviour. Research shows that one can build a glass ceiling in one’s brain and a student would unconsciously behave according to the stereotype. The same holds for blacks, women, or any other group.
All stigmatised groups’ chances of winning in life are sabotaged by the insertion of stereotypes into their brains which create unconscious, self-imposed glass ceilings that further create self-fulfilling prophecies. They also shackle themselves by unconsciously adopting the very same negative attitudes. Robertson argues that the possibility exists that Obama’s first presidential electory victory may have served to remove some glass ceilings from the brains of black people. He taught them that “Yes, they Can.’’
Becoming a winner can depend on how you respond to power. Winners live longer because it strengthens their belief that they have control in the world and this belief inoculates them against the corrosive effects of stress.
Power causes illusions of control and puts blinkers on a person. Political leaders who have a high psychological need for power tend to run their governments through small inner circles, bypassing established cabinet and committee systems. In this way, they feel they can exert the power they dearly want to deploy.
Robertson tells us that the former British prime minister Tony Blair was famous for his extremely short cabinet meetings where ministers were essentially informed about decisions made elsewhere, and yet, he still complained about the rubber levers of government which bent when he pulled them, sabotaging his great need for impact.
Democracy, one of civilisation’s inspired inventions, evolved to serve one major purpose: to protect us and our children from the brain-altering chemistry of power and its consequences. Blair lasted ten years as prime minster.
With no maximum term defined, Blair could have continued for longer were it not for the democratic pressures of a political party system in which pressure can be exerted even on the head man or woman in the country. It was these pressures that eased a reluctant Blair from high office.
A need for power is not in itself a bad thing. Teachers, psychologists, physicians, managers and campaigners are all driven by a wish to have an impact. But problems arise when a brain primed with a high need for power is over-exposed to actual power in the real world.