This is Your Brain On Awesome Thoughts on the world from a student of the mind

16Aug/10

Power tripping

The last few posts I've made have looked at how your own subjective opinions and beliefs can color the world around you, but it's also important to point out that the external world has an equally powerful effect on your subconscious.

In this weekend essay, Jonah Lehrer discusses the kinds of characteristics that allow people to rise to power, and the extent to which they lose those characteristics once they are there.

People in charge are often easy to hate, but why is this?  Why would we allow them to get there in the first place if we didn't like the way they do things?  Well, studies in psychology and sociology suggest that this might be because we have two very different personalities when we are in and out of power.

Such an effect has been well-known for a long time - just look at the bevy of corrupt villains and politicians in modern and historical literature - but this may not simply be a matter of specific "fringe benefits," rather a subtle and subconscious shift in the way that we deal with other people.

Research suggests that, in fact, being more friendly and likeable is more likely to propel you to the top of the social and professional ladder, but that once this end is achieved, the same characteristics tend to vanish.  This is not to suggest that successful people are plotting this personality switch from day one, but that it reflects a natural response to finding one's power relationships shifted in their favor.

I think this is an important point to make, because understanding it entails shifting our focus towards a different kind of problem in the workplace as well as in politics.  If we are unhappy with leadership, it is not as easy as "electing better people" and waiting for everything to get better.  Instead, we must maintain an active role in our relationship with already-elected officials and try to shape their own evolution from subordinate to top dog.  This might include a more open dialog, more transparent views of leadership activity, and a different method of accountability rather than just the threat of losing the next election.

If coming into power subjects anyone to transformative pressures and opportunities to redefine themselves, it is our job to make sure we still play a role in that process.

via The Wall Street Journal

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